“I was surprise by how cold the winter was,” says Juergen Fischhaber, a German who moved to Athens from Sofia in October. An executive at a multinational company, Fischhaber is one of 4,000 expatriates who work in highly skilled jobs in Greece and who come together regularly at meetings of the InterNations community group.
“We have 7,100 registered members, of whom 4,000 are foreigners and the rest Greeks who have spent many years abroad or who are thinking of emigrating in the near future,” Anastasios Ioannidis, the 33-year-old head of the group tells Kathimerini. Ioannidis himself spent several years abroad before returning to Greece, where he works as a business consultant.
InterNations is an international organization with branches in 400 cities around the world which is aimed at helping its members – many of whom do not speak the language of their new country – come together and network. In addition to weekly meetings and outings, the members help each other out and have online support and advice networks.
“The fora are used to address any problems that may arise,” explains Ioannidis, who coordinates members from 130 countries. “Most of the issues are solved automatically; my help is called for only when it is serious.”
Groups are also organized according to the members’ shared interests, so there is one group dedicated to hiking, another to cultural activities and so on.
The majority of InterNations members have the enthusiasm of exchange students, even though most are aged between 30 and 50.
The Greek branch, which began with just three members in 2008, is unique in the fact that it also includes natives.
“The bigger and more chaotic a city, the harder it is to adapt at first,” says Fischhaber, who has lived and worked away from Germany for over a decade. The biggest problems he has faced in Greece are not what you may imagine.
“The red tape is not much different than that in other countries, but the traffic on the streets certainly is,” stresses Fischhaber. “I can never calculate how long it will take me to get to an appointment.”
Being a German in Greece, he says laughing, “is a good excuse to start a conversation on politics.”
“Sometimes I meet Greeks who are very critical of their own country in regard to the economic crisis as well as others who blame the foreigners for everything,” Fischhaber says. “I don’t know what the mood was like before the crisis, but right now I see an aggressiveness in the way people drive.”
Slovakian Zuzana Koskova, a veteran of the expat community who has lived in Athens since 2006, makes the same observation about impatient Greek drivers who honk at every opportunity.
“When I first came to Greece, I was surprised by the expensive-looking purses carried by young girls,” she says in flawless Greek. “When I started working for a salary of 720 euros, I started wondering. Then I discovered the huge market of knockoffs, which does not exist in my country. I was surprised that they preferred to buy something fake just to make an impression.”
As the crisis starting taking its toll, Koskova’s sector, air travel, was also hit, yet the 33-year-old’s love for Athens remains unchanged “though the good and the bad.” “Now I work in shipping and I’m studying German literature,” she says. “I have been given a lot of opportunities in Greece.”
Her love of Greece also probably stems from the fact that when she was younger she wanted to be an archaeologist, as well as because all the Greeks she has met so far have embraced her. “Whenever I have time I visit the museums. The Cycladic Art Museum is my favorite,” she says. “Every time I land in Athens, I feel awe, just as I did the first time.”