Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Foreign Territory

I was reading an article about life for Dubai's expat community after one of its members was arrested for public sex and it took me back to a conversation I had just before moving to Athens. I was having dinner and drinks with a friend who had spent six months working in Tokyo as an English teacher. "Let me give you a piece of advice for when you get to Athens," she said. I listened. "Whatever you do, avoid the expat community like the plague."

How interesting. Why exactly would one want to do that? Surely that's the first rule of moving to a new country? To seek out fellow country persons or at least people who speak English? "Trust me, it's a bad idea. You'll get stuck in this expat bubble, all they do is complain about the country they're posted in and not bother getting into the local culture because they know they'll leave again. And most importantly," she said, waving a fork in my direction "they are full of older men who live by the out of sight, out of mind policy and make a hobby out of cheating on their wives with young girls." Things got so dire for her on this front that she had to recruit a male friend to pose as her boyfriend.

I filed the advice away in the Moving to Athens part of my brain, not really thinking that life as a foreigner in Tokyo could be applied to Athens. The months passed, those lonely first months when I had few friends and those that I had were of the still-getting-to-know-you variety, and I was often very tempted to join in the expat community's events. But I resisted, and eventually the friends who did initially go to those events and then stopped told me exactly the same thing that my friend in London had, that the expat community generally looked down their noses at all things Greek, didn't bother learning the language since they'd be leaving in x amount of years anyway, and stuck within their own little bubble, rarely venturing beyond downtown Athens. The only people tended to know were other expats or self hating Greeks.

I have since had a few scattered run ins with expats at gatherings and events, and they left me exhausted. By and large I found them to have a what-can-you-do-for-me attitude, whereby they can't be bothered to get to know you because they like you, they will first try to guage how useful you might potentially be to them. They gush enthusiasm on meeting you but it was usually fake. There would always be that nudge nudge wink wink question "So... what do you think of Athens?" and they'd hiss "Really?" as if I'd said I like giving myself brazilian bikini waxes using nothing but tweezers when I'd say "I love my life here."

There's the "We simply have to meet up sometime" type who takes your number and never calls and the bored expat wife type who has made bitching about the place she lives her hobby. Her life revolves around tea parties with other bored expat housewives where they probably cry over the inavailability of baked beans or something.
I'm generalising here and I know it's mean to do so, but if you've met expats anywhere in the world, this will sound familiar. The Athens expats are so caught up in their little foreign downtown Athens bubble that ask one where in Glyfada they like to hang out and you'll see that most haven't even been that far out of the city centre.

The litmus test is that amongst the expats, I feel like a stranger, an oddity, looked down upon. I know that the moment Cassandra gets back to her all expenses paid apartment, she's only going to delete my number straight off her phone. When I go to the James Joyce pub, a nice place and expat watering hole, I usually feel like an apple in a crate of oranges.

I decided that yes indeed, if you want to get anything meaningful out of your life in Athens, or even just your time in Athens, expat groups are to be avoided. My foreign friends are people who like me came to make futures in Greece and used expat groups as a crutch until they established their own social circle, which is perfectly healthy. In the end it's up to each person to do whatever they think will ease their path into settling down, but sometimes the slower, harder option yields better results, nicer friends and a richer social life.

If you are an expat upset about what I wrote, I apologise. You're probably one of the nice expats I've never met anywhere, probably because you too were avoiding the other expats.


Sesi said...

Well, I am very pleased to read this, to be honest. And this is why I chose to post by name this time, and not anonymously like so many times before.
I have been reading blogs by various foreigners who live in Greece, and I must say that I was slightly annoyed by some of them, who seem bugged with everything Greece is about. How third world, how unorganized, how rude, etc, we are.
Well, I'm sorry, but we are not only that, we are many things. My country is beautiful, and the people in it are beautiful too. True, our culture is vastly different than, say, the American culture, but why live in different countries if we should all be the same.
Yes, it may take you up to 6 months to schedule a randevouz for some examination at IKA (at worst cases), and people may sit on their balconies in the evenings in the summer speaking loudly, and we may be addicted to moving with cars, and we may not have yet learned to recycle, and there still may be people around who will abuse animals, and our birds and dogs may be loud, and it may take you a full hour or two to get to your job in the morning, and our public services may still not have full instructions for procedures on the internet (they may even vary from office to office), but hey! If you treat people nicely, they will treat you nicely! If they feel they are being looked down upon, they will treat you badly. And I cannot claim it will not be fully deserved.
It bugs me to death that the first class foreigners will come to my country and will make no effort whatsoever to adapt to my culture. It bugs me to death that they will expect me to be silent in my home, cause this is what they are used to in their countries. It bugs me to death that I will be looked down upon for animal abuse or human rights abuse, when I know for a fact that countries like the USA or the UK have the same problem with animal abuse, and they support and sustain military bases of no-mans-law like Guantanamo.
This is not a rant against foreigners, mind you, this is a rant against those people who refuse to feel welcome and get rich by all the things my country offers to them.
And in the end, if living in Greece is such a big problem, there is always the simple solution of returning home, and getting rid of the nasty Greeks once and for all.
My country isn't a third world country. It's just a country with a vastly different culture from most Western European countries. And knowing that many expats read each others blogs, let it be known that I will never ever again be apologetic about who I am to any of you!

bollybutton said...

Hey Sesi, thanks for taking the time to comment.

Much of what you say strikes home and if you read my blog you'll see that I too am guilty of getting pissed off with Greece. Why are you so loud, why do you blame everyone else for you beach trash, why do you hate Albanians. It's not a perfect country, but the tipping point came for me when I stopped thinking as a Western European and reverted to my Asian sensibilities.

Then I saw that okay, Greece may be loud, disorganised and undeveloped compared to the West, and you may never get rich here, but it's a really great place to raise a family. It's a country bursting with potential and I'm sure my future children will live in a really exciting and upcmoming Greece when they grow up.

Epats don't bother trying to see these pros because they'll leave again. I find them so ungrateful, few people get to travel and work and see the world like they do and they still complain.

Sesi said...

Oh I get pissed off about things in Greece as well at times, don't get me wrong. I do not think that we live in the ideal society- far from it in fact.
But I am proud that I can still go to the market and buy tomatoes that smell and taste like tomatoes, that I can buy a whole water melon that tastes sweet and not some washed down slice of water melon that tastes like straw soaked in water, that I can be at a marvelous beach within ten minutes, and that I can sit at my balcony in the evening enjoying the breeze, while getting informed about what the day of my neighbour from across the street was like (unwillingly, but I have grown to show an interest in her love life, which she gladly announces for the entire street to hear), that I can roast my Arni for Easter in my back yard of an appartment building with tons of smoke rising and noone caring cause they're doing the exact same thing.
I'd willingly give away the perfect public transportation system of Germany, the nice suburbian houses with garden of the USA, the perfect public health care system of the UK, the perfect social care system of Sweden, for any of the above, because that is who I am. It's the smaller things in life that make our lives here not only barable, but also worthwhile.

bollybutton said...

YES! No matter how bad your day was you can go work it all off at a beautiful beach cafe in the evening and complain to a perfect stranger about how much you hate your boss and they'll join in with you. They won't look at you like you're a weirdo. It's probably the only place I've been where you can just make friends on the street.

At the end of the day, Sesi, I realised that the small things are what you'd look back with fondness on your death bed, you won't say "I'm so happy I earned all that money and I'm so happy the trains ran on time."

Anonymous said...

Sesi, as someone who lives in the UK, your comment about 'the perfect public health care system of the UK' made me laugh... of course, we take it for granted and are always complaining about it. But then, we're always complaining about everything. (Probably as they do in every country...)

Another great post from Bollybutton, and so true. It's well-known that many UK expats who move to Spain only hang out with each other and never bother to learn Spanish. To move to another country and not even try to learn the language is, in my opinion, incredibly rude - not to mention utterly instrumental in cementing one's own unhappiness and inability to truly settle in one's new abode.

When I lived in Athens for a year, I lodged with an English lady formerly involved in the arts, living in Athens for goodness knows what reason. She had no job, wasn't married to a Greek man, and didn't like Athens. So WHY was she there? One of life's mysteries, never explained. She was a bit of an alcoholic, so perhaps it's the cheap booze that did it. I tried to get her to learn Greek, to tell her it would transform her life there, but she couldn't be arsed.

While it's legitimate to have grievances with one's new country - and NO country is perfect! - it's rude to go on and on about them, like some expats do. And this can be avoided by expats properly researching the country they're moving to before they move there.

If they decide that, in Greece's case, corruption, 'connections', indifference to animals, graffiti, shoutiness, litter, and both individual and municipal antipathy towards public space are likely to cancel out any enjoyment they may derive from the many good things Greece has to offer, then they should really consider whether that is the country for them. As a diaspora Greek who sometimes wonders whether to move there again myself (and I too would be an expat), it's a dilemma I think about the whole time.

betabug said...

These "expats" are high on colonialism.

I do not even as much as avoid them, I just let them fall by the wayside.

Same with expat-blogs: There are some that I read, which take my chosen country seriously, make an effort to get to know it and become a part of it. Others will only complain and complain and I'm not going to waste my online time on them.

It's also interesting that the not-always-complaining blogs have better writing.

I'd like to mention that "not-always-complaining" doesn't mean that people take everything as is and won't do an effort to change something. "Becoming a part of a place" also means taking responsibility, which includes working to change things that need changing. Not the same as "complaining" though.

teacher dude said...

I've got to admit as an "ex-pat" myself that much of what you say is true. When I first got to Greece I had very similar experiences and did much the same as you.

I still think the key is to learn the language. Without that your life here will never be more than an extended coach trip.

stassa said...

Ah Bolly! You make me want to play devil's advocate! To be honest, I've met some of the expats you say- a few of the Brits who live permanently in Corfu. Although my experience of them was that they were terribly snotty and patronising to anyone who didn't speak English with a proper accent, I can't blame them for not being to keen on learning Greek. It's true that my language is not spoken anywhere else in the world, so it's not as useful as, say, Spanish or French would be- or even German. Anyway Greek is a hard language to learn, especially if you're used to the bare-bones approach of English (that doesn't bother with such, frankly, relics of the linguistic past, as multiple cases, gendered nouns and all sorts of weird terminations and cojungations and what have you!).

Also, whatever else can be said about the Brittish (and my own criticisms know no end!) there's this one thing that really sets them apart: they simply love to travel abroad. OK, so maybe the weather and the food back home really sucks, or maybe some are just imperialistic bastards looking to make a fortune from other people's misery, but I think mostly they just like to visit far away places and see how other people live their lives. There's not too many peoples in the world who share their wanderlust. And that, I believe is a sad thing- for all those other people who never even wonder how life is elsewhere!

So those expats, they go abroad and bitch about everything, then go back home and congratulate themselves that they live in the best possible country in the whole world. So what, come on... I've seen the exact same attitude among Greek university students in the UK, for example. In fact, I've seen the exact same attitude among Athenian university students in Corfu! I'm sure everyone is a bit like that, or more than a bit. It's hard enough to adapt to the society you're born into, let alone a foreign one, where it's easy to blame it all on those damn Brits, or Greeks, or Spaniards or whatever.

There's another thing I've noticed: both Brits and Greeks have a very strong sense of national identity, as it where. It seems to me sometimes that both are fully prepared to like you and be nice to you, but only on the condition that you recognise their culture as the indisuputably bestest ever in the whole world. That's bound to wear a bit on some people's good intentions, not to mention the ones who don't have such a positive outlook to begin with!

Anyway, I've been reading you for a while now and what I get from your blog is that you're very happy living in Greece. Well, I'm so happy for you! Really! (and quite a bit relieved that the usual idiots haven't managed to ruin it for you!) I think that others can't feel the same is just, you know, a pitty for them... :(

Phew, huge comment! Sorry Bolly... I think you've just witnessed my concentrated guilt of three years living in the UK and never finding a good thing to say about the place or the people there... ::shame::

AL said...

I've not really thought about how other expats are and what i do or dont do.... i dont really even think of myself as an expat.

once i had made my decision to move here and marry my greek half.. that was that. i just think of how best to cope with being in a new place, with none of the friends, family or support that i've had for the last 33 years. sure things are not always easy and there are pros and cons in every country.. but i had over 2 years to be prepared for the move mentally... so i guess i was not suprised or overwhelmed.. perhaps being so terrified initially made all the bad stuff seem normal and expected. i dont over think things i guess. i've not made a single good buddy over here... but i have quite a handful of 'friends' from athens and so on on my mobile. frankly i am too busy to be bored since i started working. i havent learnt the language too well and that bugs most people who know me, but even after the lessons and all that, my brain just wont seem to store any new words... i just quit beating myself up over it. i'm here for the long haul and i have a routine. work and homelife... if new friends come, they come .. but really even if I were in the home country, it wouldnt be easier to find new friends at this age.... i guess i've just quit judging situations or people in the sense of comparing 'in greece' and 'back in malaysia'... of course i do make references... but i hope its just to share the differences, not as a complaint. ANd its good to laugh at the situation at times. I've used expat communities as a source for advice and support a few times... and yes probably in that ' what i can get out of it' kind of way, but not with individual friendships. in the cases of public communities etc... which i think is normal.
its hard to think of myself as an expat. i a non greek living here permanently, with a greek husband who still has to translate half of all conversations to me... and we have come to accept that. i watch tonnes of the trashiest greek tv... cook better greek food than my own home country food... i think i am doing ok. What do i complain most abt... hmm.. probably abt sexism, shallow views about what being a female is all about... but perhaps i'm just jealous.... haha.
Life goes on.. we just do what we do... some people like it some dont.. some go one way some the other way.
hehe... zen mentality! ye-ha