A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Greece
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- Rajat Bhatnagar
It is really good to speak and hear Hindi from time to time. With InterNations I got to know compatriots in Athens and Thessaloniki.
Life in Greece
At a Glance:
- Greece has recently experienced political turmoil and had three elections in 2015 alone.
- Its public infrastructure (especially the healthcare system) is unfortunately in bad shape due to the financial crisis.
- For your own safety, you should keep in mind that there are a lot of strikes and demonstrations in the center of Athens.
Greece: An Introduction
Although located at the crossroads between the east and west, Greece, rather than being a mix of European and Middle Eastern cultures, has its own distinctive character. There are nearly eleven million people living in Greece. This country on the Mediterranean Sea enjoys a temperate climate with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Eighty percent of the country is covered in mountains, leaving only a limited amount of arable land.
The people living in Greece are known for their warmth and hospitality. A great majority of Greeks (88.1%) are members of the Greek Orthodox Church. After being largely ethnically homogenous for centuries, Greece is now gradually becoming a multicultural country, with an estimated one fifth of its workforce claiming foreign descent. As an expat living in Greece, you will receive a premier seat at the table to experience its unique culture and charm.
Even those not living in Greece will know of its long history, which stretches back to prehistoric times, with the first traces of human settlement dating to the Stone Age. Greece, with its mainland and over 1,000 islands, was center stage in world history for many centuries due to its strategic position on the Mediterranean Sea. The dates of the flourishing Minoan civilization on Greece’s largest island, Crete, from 2700 to 1500 BCE, partially overlap with those of the Mycenaean civilization on the country proper, from 1900 to 1100 BCE.
The famous civilization of ancient Greece emerged in the first millennium BCE, and enjoyed its Golden Age from about 500 to 300 BCE. Many of the ideas developed during this time, regarding democracy, philosophy, medicine, the arts, and more remain influential today.
Expats living in Greece will have time to visit many of the relics of these bygone ages. After Ancient Greece fell to the Romans in 146 BCE, it became a part of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire, and finally the Ottoman Empire, before finally gaining its independence in 1830.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Greece added more, mainly Greek-speaking, islands and territories to its possessions. During World War II, life in Greece was disrupted when it was first invaded by Italy in 1940 and then occupied by Germany from 1941 to 1944. Many Greeks starved to death during the occupation, and a fierce counter-occupation movement also took many lives.
Adding to the strife, at the end of WWII, a civil war erupted between the Communists and anti-Communists, which lasted until 1949. Greece subsequently joined NATO in 1952. A military coup seized power in 1967 and the country was governed by a military dictatorship for the next seven years. In 1974, a parliamentary republic was established and the monarchy was abolished.
Politics in Greece
Political life in Greece is structured around general elections, which take place every four years unless the government is dissolved earlier. The prime minister is the head of the government, and the president, who serves a five-year term and is elected by the parliament, is the head of state.
Greece has a multi-party system, although prior to the 2012 elections, the Greek electorate was about evenly split between the liberal-conservative New Democracy party and the social-democratic Panhellenic Socialist Movement. In the 2012 election, seven political parties (among them the left-wing coalition party Syriza, which finished second) won enough votes to gain seats in parliament, reflecting the widespread effect the economic crisis has had on all areas of life in Greece. The coalition formed in 2012 was formed from three parties, New Democracy, PASOK, and DIMAR, with the former in the ascendancy and the others as junior partners. However, in mid-2013 DIMAR left the parliament in protest due to the closure of a public broadcaster, resulting in PASOK taking a greater role in government.
Major upheavals happened in Greek politics in the course of 2015 while the country was on the brink of bankruptcy. Firstly, a legislative election was held in January 2015 (earlier than expected because the parliament failed to elect a president in December 2014), and a coalition led by Syriza and Alexis Tsipras emerged as the winner. This coalition organized a referendum to see if the Greeks agreed with the debt bailout negotiated with the European Union, and the result was an overwhelming no.
The outcome of the referendum pushed the Greek government to continue negotiations with the EU, which led to a final agreement, accepted by both parties in August 2015. However, Syriza politicians were divided on the question, which led to the resignation of Alexis Tsipras. Thus, new elections were held in September of the same year, and the result was another victory of the Syriza-led coalition.
Discovering Life in Greece
The Mediterranean Diet
Greece is famous for its agricultural products, including olive oil, olives, wine, cheese, and saffron. Recent studies have indicated that the Mediterranean Diet practiced in Greece increases longevity and decreases the risk of heart disease and diseases of the digestive system. This diet consists of olive oil, cereals, legumes, fresh fruits, and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish and wine, as well as small quantities of meat and dairy products.
The Mediterranean Diet is not only a way of eating, but rather a way of life, based on social interaction and communal meals. As such it forms the foundation of Greek culture. Since November 2010, the Mediterranean Diet has been classed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Greece, together with Italy, Spain, and Morocco.
Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, is the most important religious holiday in Greece. It is celebrated with candlelight processions, fireworks and drinking, dancing and feasting in the countryside. There are many traditions during Holy Week leading up to Easter as well. As might be expected, food is a central part of all these festivities.
Christmas celebrations in Greece last for twelve days, from Christmas Day to Epiphany. Traditionally, small boats, known as karavaki, were decorated instead of trees, and nowadays, this practice is being revived. Another delightful Christmas tradition is that of the kallikantzari, or Christmas elves. These little hobgoblins emerge from beneath the earth’s surface for the twelve days of Christmas to sneak into Greek homes and scare the inhabitants. Various rituals exist to keep them away.
Everyday Life in Greece
Shops are generally open from 9:00 to 15:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, and from 10:00 to 14:00 and 17:00 to 20:30 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. In the winter, bigger supermarkets are open from 8:00 to 20:00 from Monday to Friday and from 8:00 to 18:00 on Saturdays. In the summer, they stay open for about an hour longer in the evenings.
Although these opening hours may seem strange and inconvenient to expats living in Greece, the situation seems ready to change. Under pressure from creditors, the government passed laws in mid-2014 to deregulate the market, allowing shops to open on Sundays in ten tourist regions. However, the move was heavily criticized by three important interest groups in Greek politics — the Orthodox Church, who deems it a sin to work on the day of rest, the unions who say it will further the exploitation of the workers, and the smalltime shopkeepers who, once the lifeblood of the economy, argue that it favors big business. Protests have followed the laws through parliament and after its promulgation. It has nonetheless been implemented, and it is now common to see shops open on Sunday in touristic areas.
Post offices are usually open from 7:30 to 14:00 from Monday to Friday. Some post offices in bigger cities have longer hours. The post office on Syntagma Square in central Athens, for example, is open from 7:30 to 20:00 on Monday to Friday, from 7:30 to 14:00 on Saturday, and from 9:00 to 13:30 on Sunday. In Thessaloniki, several post offices are open past 14:00, but only the Central Post Office is open on Saturdays, from 7:30 to 14.00, and Sundays, from 9:00 to 13:30.
Opening a Bank Account in Greece
In order to open a bank account in Greece, you need to be in possession of your taxpayer identification number (Αριθμός Φορολογικού Μητρώου). You also need to bring your passport to open a bank account. In addition, you have to provide your home address; a utility bill is generally enough. Also, if you work in Greece, the bank needs the address of your workplace: to provide the information you can bring your pay slip or your employment contract.
Banks are generally open from 8:00 to 14:30 from Monday to Thursday and between 8:00 and 14:00 on Friday. Banks in malls are often open until 21:00 and also have business hours on Saturdays.
As of March 2012, banks can ask for your most recent income tax return (ekkatharistiko) in addition to your passport before performing any kind of financial transaction. This serves as a proof of income as well as showing that you paid your taxes.
Transportation Infrastructure in Greece
Greece has four main international airports, the largest of which is Eleftherios Veniselos International Airport, located 33km northeast of Athens. The other international airports are located outside of Thessaloniki, Corfu, and Rhodes. There are also good train connections with many major European destinations, though, in early 2016, the refugee crisis at the border to Macedonia led to difficulties on that route. Regular ferry transit also connects Greece with Italy and Turkey.
Within Greece, in addition to the rail network, long-distance bus lines connect most major cities. Ferries are the best way to get to the many Greek islands. The main ports in Attica on the mainland are Piraeus (Athens) and Rafina. Domestic flights are operated by a number of carriers, the largest of which are Aegean Airlines and Olympic Air.
Safety and Healthcare in Greece
As Greece is located on a major fault line, tremors often occur and major earthquakes are a possibility. To help with expats’ disaster preparedness, the Greek government has put together an earthquake safety pamphlet.
The current financial crisis and the tough austerity measures have led to widespread discontent and political instability. As a result, there are often strikes which can affect all areas of daily life — public transportation, opening hours for government offices and post offices, garbage collection, etc. In addition, there are frequent protests and demonstrations. These are usually peaceful, but have been known to get violent, so it is best to avoid such areas at these times if at all possible.
There has also been an important increase in the number of refugees arriving on the Greek islands, especially Lesbos, Kos, and Samos. Even though incidents in these areas are fairly rare, it is recommended to be cautious when visiting the islands.
Medical Care in Greece
Medical services are generally good, especially in Athens and Thessaloniki. However, the situation of public hospitals has worsened because of the debt crisis that began in 2009. In fact, in 2015 the government only spent 4% of the GDP on the healthcare system, while it spent 10% in 2009. In addition to this, there is a shortage of 5,000 doctors and 15,000 nurses in the public healthcare system. In big cities, those who would like a higher quality of care have the option of paying for medical treatment in private hospitals and clinics. Most of the Greeks who still have the resources to do so are now opting for private healthcare, and it is highly advisable that you do the same.
Medical care in rural areas and on many of the Greek islands is often substandard and lacking in resources; therefore, these patients are often transported to bigger cities on the mainland in order to receive better treatment. Doctors in the big cities usually speak English in addition to another European language.
In case of an emergency, dial 112, the European-wide emergency number, where you are guaranteed to reach English-speaking operators. Alternatively, dial 100 for the police, 166 for an ambulance, and 199 in case of fire.
Health Insurance in Greece
In Greece, public health insurance has been mandatory since the introduction of a national healthcare system (ESY, short for ΕθνικόΣύστημαΥγείας) in 1983. Most Greeks are insured through their employer, and the largest insurance provider in Greece is IKA, which also provides other social benefits such as pension and unemployment benefits. See the Working in Greece article for more information.
The primary healthcare recipient (the employed party) receives their own personal health booklet, which must be presented when the patient receives medical services. Family members of the primary healthcare recipient receive a family health booklet. In cities, you are free to choose your own general practitioner from a list; in rural areas, there is often only one doctor serving a specific area. You can make appointments with specialists without a referral from your general practitioner.
With public health insurance, medical treatment is free (although copays are slowly being introduced), but the wait times, even for cancer operations, can be shockingly long, especially since the beginning of the financial crisis. Many people who used to be able to afford private insurance are now also relying on the public system. In some cases, pharmacists are demanding that even their insured customers pay the full-price for medicines, as the government already owes them large sums in reimbursements.
It is a good idea to check if your company will provide you with additional private health insurance. If not, you should consider whether purchasing additional private coverage is the right choice for you and your family.
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- Rajat Bhatnagar
It is really good to speak and hear Hindi from time to time. With InterNations I got to know compatriots in Athens and Thessaloniki.
- Amelie Barreau
InterNations members are really helpful and provided us with valuable tips about the international schools in Athens.