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Writing novels and farming olives: An English expat in Greece

  • Rob in Greece
Interview
Published 2 months ago

Rob Johnson is a self-described 'reluctant olive farmer' and an author in Greece. Originally from England, Rob has just published his new book, 'A Kilo of String', which gives fellow expats and anyone thinking of moving to Greece some insight into the oddities and unique aspects of living there. Rob tells Expat.com a bit about how he's finding day to day life in Greece, olives and all.

Rob Johnson

Having already written three novels, Rob is now on his fourth book, 'A Kilo of String', where he documents his experiences of life in Greece, from olive harvesting to bassoon playing. Rob also blogs, and the podcast series that inspired his book can be found on his website.

Please introduce yourself. Where are you from, what are you doing in Greece and what were you doing before you arrived?

Hello, I’m Rob Johnson and I’m from England. I’m a writer and reluctant olive farmer, and before moving to Greece I was working as a freelance editor, mainly for environmental NGOs.

What brought you to Greece? How long have you been in the country?

It’s a cliché, I know, but I have to admit it was mostly for the weather. Before my partner (now wife), Penny, and I moved to Greece thirteen years ago, we were living in the heart of the Peak District National Park, and although it’s a wonderful part of the country, even the summers could be disappointingly sunless.

What is the process to move to Greece?

We came to Greece well before the Brexit referendum, so there weren’t any particular issues involved for us as members of another EU member state. Getting our Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Bessie, here was a nightmare, though, in terms of all the documentation we needed. As the guy at the British government ministry responsible for the “Pet Passport” scheme told us, ‘To be perfectly honest, it would be a hell of a lot easier if you were transporting a herd of sheep or cattle to Greece.’

What is your favourite thing about Greece, and what is your least favourite thing?

Image by Rob Johnson

Did I mention the weather? It’s mostly great of course but, more seriously, there’s a general attitude to life in Greece that’s summed up in the often heard expression “sιgá-sιgá”. Similar in meaning to the Spanish “mañana”, this translates literally as “slowly-slowly” or “Why rush to do today what can easily wait till tomorrow – or the day after?”

My least favourite thing about Greece has to be the disastrous effects on the vast majority of the Greek people by the appallingly stringent austerity measures introduced since the beginning of the economic crisis at the insistence of the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF.

How would you describe Greece in one sentence?

In Greece, a lot of things are difficult, but nothing is impossible.

What has surprised you the most about Greece?

Where do I start? I could write a book about this. Oh, wait. I already have. But seriously, one of the first things we found particularly surprising was the apparent lack of a logical reason for some of the things which seemed so strange to us when we first arrived. This has always struck me as rather ironic considering it was the Greeks who pretty much invented logic – the word itself coming from the original Greek logιkí – and if you ask a Greek person why, for instance, string and rope are sold by the kilo rather than the metre, they’ll usually just shrug and say, ‘Why not?’ Fair enough really. I mean, you can’t argue with logic like that, can you?

What are the year’s biggest holidays in Greece? What is some essential etiquette in Greece?

Independence Day on 25th March is one of the most important dates in the Greek calendar and celebrates the beginning of the War of Independence with the Ottoman Empire in 1821. There are also major celebrations on 28th October (Ochi Day) to commemorate the day in 1940 when Mussolini demanded free access into Greece for his troops, but the Greek response was quite simple: “Ochi” – “No”. Christmas and Easter are major celebrations in Greece, of course, although Greeks attach quite a lot more importance to Easter (Pascha).

As far as etiquette is concerned, the Greeks are generally pretty relaxed about this kind of thing but with a few notable exceptions. Oddly enough, the examples we’ve come across mainly involve alcohol. By and large, the Greeks aren’t big drinkers -- at least, not in the falling-down-drunk sense -- and very few will have an ouzo or a tsipouro unless it’s accompanied by a “meze”. This is a small dish with a selection of hors d’oeuvres such as meat, fish, cheese, etc..

Greeks are very generous people and even those who don’t know you very well will sometimes send over a round of drinks to your table at the local taverna. However, it’s considered very impolite to return the compliment during the same evening as we’d normally do in the UK. Instead, wait for another occasion before “getting your round in”. Similarly, we once went to a Greek family’s home for a New Year’s Eve party, and because there was a group of us we took several bottles of beer with us as our contribution. The host was horrified. ‘You think I can’t afford to buy beer myself?’ he said.

How do you find the lifestyle in Greece?

Image by Rob Johnson

As I said earlier, one of the great things about living in Greece is the generally laid-back approach to life epitomised in the expression “sιgá-sιgá” (slowly-slowly), which is a welcome change from the far more hectic pace of life in Britain. This can be a little frustrating when you really need to get something done in a hurry, but having said that, the Greeks tend to drop everything to help you out if it’s a genuine emergency.

They also have the word “philotimo”, and although we don’t have a similar word in English, it roughly translates as “love of honour”, which even the Greeks struggle to define themselves. It does, however, include such concepts as “doing the right thing” and as a volunteer at one of the refugee camps in Greece recently defined it, ‘Stepping out from your comfort zone to help someone in need.’

Despite the appalling effects of the austerity measures introduced since the beginning of the economic crisis, the Greeks still retain their well deserved reputation for hospitality and generosity. They also know how to have fun and to celebrate the very act of being alive, which is best summed up by another word which we Brits don’t have an equivalent for – “kefi” – which has much the same meaning as the Irish “craic”.

How is the transportation system in Greece? How do you move around?

The transportation system in Greece is excellent, with trains and buses being almost always on time and tickets are much much cheaper than in the UK. The downside is that public transport can be rather sparse the further away you get from the major cities. Also, due to cutbacks, no trains run at all now throughout the whole of the Peloponnese.

Have you been able to adapt to Greece and the society there?

I can’t say it was easy in the early stages, although Penny seemed to adapt far more quickly than I did. Perhaps I just have a much lower culture shock threshold than she does, but I think it was probably more to do with my inability to communicate in Greek as well as I would have liked. I’m a bit of a chatterer by nature, so I found this incredibly frustrating even though both Penny and I have put in a lot of effort to learn the language.

I’m still nowhere near as proficient as I’d like to be with the Greek language, but nowadays I feel perfectly at home here and can’t really imagine ever going back to live in the UK again. We’ve made plenty of Greek friends here and it’s almost impossible to go into town without bumping into somebody we know even if it’s just on a ‘Hello. How are you?’ basis.

How is everyday life for you in Greece?

Image by Rob Johnson

There isn’t really such a thing as “everyday life” here, although writing takes up most of my time, and we generally have to go into our local town two or three times a week to do the food shopping and/or deal with some kind of “official” business such as paying bills or renewing our residence permits.

Given that we live on a five-acre smallholding with 420 olive trees, there’s always something to do on the land. Keeping five acres’ worth of grass and weeds down with a strimmer is an almost never-ending job, but our busiest times are during the spring when we do the heavy pruning of the olive trees and the winter when we harvest the olives. We’ve often been complimented on the quality of the organic oil we produce from our olives, although I must admit that I dread the actual harvesting more and more each year.

If you want to know why – and also why I think olive harvesting should be registered with the Dangerous Sports Association – I’ve devoted an entire chapter to this in my new book and also an episode of my series of podcasts. The chapter and podcast episode are both called “I’d Rather Eat My Own Face”, so that should probably give you a clue as to how I feel about the olive harvest.

What is your opinion on the cost of living in Greece? How much does a bus ticket, a beer, and a loaf of bread cost?

The cost of living is variable. Some things are much cheaper than in the UK (e.g. most over-the-counter medicines, council tax and TV licences) and others are much more expensive (e.g. books, clothes and second-hand cars), but prices have generally risen across the board since the EU insisted that Greece increased its VAT rate on most items.

Bus tickets are about 25 euros for a single journey of 250 kilometres (155 miles). A half litre of beer costs 2 to 3 euros in most bars and tavernas. A standard half-kilo white loaf of bread is about seventy to eighty cents.

What is something that you would like to do in Greece but haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?

In the thirteen years we’ve lived in Greece, we haven’t done nearly as much sightseeing as we’d have liked. That’s mainly because it’s not that easy to find someone to look after our five dogs and two cats while we’re away. Meteora is definitely a priority as soon as we can manage it, though.

I’d also like to play cricket more often, but the vast majority of Greek people have never even heard of it, so it’s almost impossible to get any kind of team together.

Share your most memorable experience in Greece.

Image by Rob Johnson

There have been so many, it’s hard to single out one in particular, but the most memorable has to be the day when Penny and I got married in July 2014. It was an absolute nightmare getting all the right documents together, and the British bureaucracy was just as bad as the Greek. Even so, we managed eventually, and although it was a fairly low-key affair, we had a fantastic day celebrating with local friends and also family and friends who’d come over from the UK.

What do you think of the local cuisine?

I’ve been a vegetarian for over thirty years, and Greek cuisine is very meat oriented. Having said that, it’s much easier for a veggie to eat out in Greece than it is in France or Spain, for instance, as there are plenty of starters and a few meat-free main courses on most menus.

What do you miss the most about your home country?

Not very much really, although I’ve devoted a whole chapter to this in my new book and mentioned four specific things: friends and family; a decent pint of beer (e.g. Fuller’s London Pride); watching Crystal Palace FC; and cricket.

Give us some useful tips that soon-to-be expatriates in Greece will benefit from.

By far the most important is to learn as much of the Greek language as you can before you arrive. Plenty of Brits expect people in foreign countries to be able to speak English, which is not only arrogant, but a serious mistake, unless you’re moving to one of the bigger cities in Greece.

If possible, take your time to look around as many areas of Greece before committing yourself to one in particular. If you’re intending to buy somewhere, rent a place first so you can use that as a base for your explorations.

Read “A Kilo of String”, which will tell you everything you never realised you wanted to know about Greece or didn’t dare to ask.

If you had to advise an expat on five items to bring with them to Greece which would they be?

Image by Rob Johnson

Plenty of UK to European plug adapters. You’ll no doubt be bringing several electrical items with you, but you’ll never have enough adapters.

Most people will have one already nowadays, but make sure you have something to read e-books on. Books in Greece tend to be very expensive, and in it’s difficult to find many in English outside Athens or the bigger cities.

A good English/Greek dictionary, but not just a pocket one – you’ll often need to look up words that you won’t find in the smaller editions. There’s always the Internet, I know, but you might find yourself somewhere without Internet access as we did when we first came.

Patience and a sense of humour. Most things don’t happen nearly as quickly here as we’re used to in the UK.

A cricket bat. I can guarantee you’ll never find one in Greece, except maybe on Corfu.

What are your plans for the future?

To carry on much as we have been, I guess. Writing, olive farming, and simply enjoying the privilege of living here, unless of course the whole Brexit disaster puts a spanner in the works.

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