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Falling in love with Greece

Thursday February 8, 2007

Sara Young

People talk about the ?bravery? of deciding to move abroad; in my case I simply felt there was nothing immediate keeping me in England. I was anxious to forget the fallout of a bad relationship and I was about to be made redundant from a job I in any case hated. Remembering what I?d heard from the ubiquitous friend of a friend some years earlier, I decided to book a place on an introductory TEFL course and set about applying for jobs abroad. I had only two provisos: no children and I didn?t like hot countries. Which is why I found myself standing in front of a class of young teenagers in mainland Greece in mid-August. And why, for reasons that evade logical explanation, almost eight years later I find myself buying furniture for my new flat here.

Some expatriates say it was work colleagues who helped them fit into a new country. Despite my initial fears, I found it was the children I worked with who helped me. Greek kids have a reputation for being the most ill-disciplined rabble in Europe, if not the world. This is undeniable fact, but once you realise that what to a non-Greek might sound like ?answering back? they regard as ?starting a lively debate?, there are fewer problems. Children everywhere are ready to open up without guile; and in Greece they talk about customs and traditions with a freshness and singularity that adults have often forgotten.

As for the language, being an English language teacher is one of those situations where you?re there NOT to speak the language. (I?m still feigning total ignorance of Greek to make the students talk in English!) The new school secretary, Tasoula, had no truck with that: despite her own excellent English she insisted from day one on giving me all instructions in Greek. ?You have a dictionary, don?t you?? The question was rhetorical. For the first six months I took intensive grammar lessons, but it was thanks to Tasoula?s brusque maxim: ?You?re living here; you have to learn the language? that a year later I moved to a small rural town in northern Greece devoid of English speakers, and plunged into error-strewn daily conversation. The accent found in Greek Macedonia, which Athenians regard as impenetrable, is now as clear to me as a bell, while I still struggle with accents from further south.

When people hear I?ve been here so long, their knowing response is: ?Ah, so you found a Greek man to marry?. Why else would one choose to stay on in a foreign country? But no, I didn?t fall in love with someone, but somewhere. During the years I?ve been in Greece, I?ve visited the famous monuments, sunbathed on the golden sands and swum with olive skinned boyfriends in crystal clear waters. But I?ve also lived with Greece?s quirks and faults. The bureaucracy and delays drive me insane, as does the difficulty in obtaining a straight answer to a question. A common exchange in the post office goes like this:

?Do you have any stamps for England??

?How many would you like??

?Four please.?

?No, we don?t have any.?

Yet I?ve also discovered a true warmth coupled with an acceptance of strangers who are happy to adapt to the Greek way of life.

As for advice, my immediate family in England was so taken aback by my sudden decision to leave (?I?m going to live in Greece! In four weeks?time!?) that they could think of nothing to say. I was walking into a void. And yet it?s the best way; to leave all preconceptions and expectations behind and just take it as you find it. I reckoned if I made the first Christmas I?d be OK. And, as it turns out, I was.

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