HUFFINGTON POST

5 Foreigners Explain Why They're Staying In Greece Despite The Crisis

The expats are uniquely placed to see both sides of the story.

The Greek debt crisis has exposed deep political and economic divides within Europe. Plenty of blame for Greece's economic decline has been hurled back and forth between Athens and Berlin, with press and politicians across the continent resting on old stereotypes of their neighbors.

Those perhaps best placed to challenge these stereotypes and clearly see both sides of the story are Greece's expat population. Over 188,000 European nationals were living in Greece last year, and many of them chose to stay.

HuffPost Greece spoke to five expats from Western European countries about their unique vantage point on the crisis. 

Name: Sebastien Seixas

Nationality: French

Profession: Musical instrument maker

­How did you come to live in Greece, and why don't you want to leave?

I came to Greece on holiday in 1993 with my Greek girlfriend, returned in 1995, stayed for a year, learned the language and returned in 1997. I've lived in Athens ever since. 

The quality of life is what kept me here. I opened my workshop from the start. I make, repair and preserve string quartet instruments. However, since 2010, work has slowed down a lot. But I am coping; I work a lot, but I am OK.

­How do people in France see Greece, and how do you see the crisis and the future of Greece?

In France, people are quite friendly toward Greece. They keep asking what is going on but it's not always easy to explain the crisis -- one has to live it to understand it. They often say: "We go through the same here." People's stance depends on their level of education as well as the information they get. If they just watch TV, they are usually hostile. They reproduce the cliches. Those who read and do more research are friendlier.

I personally feel that this crisis is the last stage of integrating Greece into the EU. It is a painful adjustment, which started in Europe in the '80s. In France in particular it happened in 1983, when [former French President François] Mitterrand turned from the radical socialism he advocated to austerity. I was 9 years old at the time and still recall how shocked I was at the sight of the first homeless people who, like Greece before the bailouts, didn't exist before. In Greece, the turn of the economic model is more violent; it won't happen in 30 years but in five­ to 10 years.

Regarding the future, I am a realist -- a mix of pessimism and optimism. It is a critical time for Greece, but I think the country can enter a new era. But the self­-criticism I saw the first months of the crisis has to continue. It was the first time that I saw people take such responsibility in this country. The biggest damage done by the troika was that they managed to turn this internal soul-searching to [the feeling that] "it's the fault of the foreigners." I think that both sides are to blame for getting to this point -- both failed -- but it isn't easy to express such an opinion.

Name: Marie Hilonen

Nationality: Finnish

Profession: Social worker

How did you come to live in Greece, and why don't you want to leave?

I first came to Greece when I was 6 years old, on holiday with my parents in Rhodes. Since that time, Greece has been close to my heart, and in 1997 I moved here. I had been working for years for a Danish tourist agency until I was fired in 2010. That was a difficult year. Now I work as a social worker for the Scandinavian Church in Plaka.

I am not even thinking about leaving, unless maybe if both my Greek husband and I lost our jobs. 

­How do people in Finland see Greece, and how do you see the crisis and the future of Greece?

It's not easy to explain what is going on to the Finns, to help them understand that, yes, there is extensive tax evasion in Greece, but most people pay their taxes while others who live in villas and own yachts pay much less than they should. I think [financial] control is not pleasant but it is definitely necessary. If all Greeks paid their share, then simple things would become feasible, like having food at school or for my daughter's high school to get an English teacher. In Finland, we have the Scandinavian model of the welfare state. They give children everything from pencils to laptops.

Unfortunately, Finnish journalists talk about only one side of the reality in Greece. I gave interviews to Finnish media and got upset when some journalists twisted what I said. The Finns can't get past certain stereotypes and understand that the Greeks work longer hours or that the unemployed have no protection whatsoever. It annoys me to hear about "lazy" Greeks.

I didn't expect things to get so bad that they would close the banks, but when that did happen, I handled it calmly. Greeks also handle their stress well. I couldn't get my salary during that period. I get paid in Finland and the bank couldn't send the money over. Luckily, my sister helped me out.

I hope the Greeks do some self­-criticism. Greece has endless possibilities for tourism -- I brought over some Finns for a trekking trip and they were stunned. Greeks should be brave enough, even during this crisis, to invest in a country that has it all ­-- nature, good climate, culture, history and food. 

Name: Jan De Breuk

Nationality: Dutch

Profession: Tour guide

How did you come to live in Greece, and why don't you want to leave?

I visited [the Greek island] Santorini in 2011. Before I went back, I went to Exarcheia square [in Athens] and fell in love with it. I kept changing my return ticket until I decided to cancel my return ticket altogether. 

In the Netherlands, life is safe and everything is organized. Here it's the opposite. All of your senses are awake. I started to observe things again, as if I woke up from a deep sleep. Here, reality slaps you in the face, but this is the reality of Greece during the crisis. Now, I am a tour guide and I love my job. If I wasn't optimistic, I would leave. I live on a lower income than in the Netherlands. Sometimes it's hard and I wonder how I am going to pay the bills, but not once did I think of going back.

How is Greece different from the Netherlands, and how do you see the crisis and the future of Greece?

They are as different as societies can be. In Greece, there is a lot of division and political polarization, as there was in the Netherlands until the 1970s.

The recent period has been exciting but I want to see real results and changes. The government should genuinely confront the oligarchs and the major media companies. I am just scared that Greeks, impatient as they are, might again get disappointed and turn to the extreme right.

Name: Chiarra Boni

Nationality: Italian

Profession: Student

How did you come to live in Greece and how do you see the crisis?

I wanted to visit a country to the south of Europe, and I liked Athens right away. It felt like home, like an Italian city of the south. If you like architecture, history and modern art, then Athens is definitely a city you want to explore.

During the crisis, life in Greece still felt normal to me. Before I came here I got my information about the Greek crisis from the Italian media and I think they exaggerated things, perhaps to draw attention away from problems at home. I kept being asked by friends and family in Italy whether I had food and if the city was burning.

How do you see the comparisons between [Greek Prime Minister] Alexis Tsipras and [Italian Prime Minister] Matteo Renzi?

Beyond a loose ideological similarity and their age, I don't see many similarities. I have seen Tsipras talk and people cheer for him in public squares. I don't know if this is demagogy but it sure doesn't happen with Renzi. In Italy no politician has this charisma. We are really frustrated by our political system and all governments.

 Name: Ronald Schacht

Nationality: German

Profession: Director of the MAN truck and bus company

How did you come to live in Greece, and how has your job been affected by the crisis?

I first came here with my Greek wife because we wanted our son to be born in Greece. The second time I moved here was because of my job. I still like living in Greece -- after all these years here I feel like it is home.

Since 2009, the professional and commercial vehicles market has shrunk by up to 90 percent. The last five years felt like an emotional roller coaster: from despair to hope and back again. I had to start a second job in Germany to maintain our standard of living. I have to commute to Germany every week, so I only see my family on the weekends, which was a painful compromise for me. But I really admire the financial and emotional resilience of Greeks -- even at the peak of the crisis, they were standing in lines at cash machines.

How do you compare the way that Greeks and Germans have handled the situation?

The Greeks made a mistake by not always playing by the book. Germans always follow rules, and then they can even accept defeat. But I urge Germans to better understand the Greek position and approach, as well as the reality in the country. The German elite never bothered to understand Greek culture. Perhaps they could have used Greek-Germans as bridges between the two countries, but they never did.

Germans are very formal people, they live according to rules and principles. This is good because otherwise you cannot realize a just society. But they can also be inflexible and just stick to procedures. The Greek culture, by contrast, ranges from the liberal to the anarchic, with an absence of rules and an individualism that often doesn't consider the impact of actions on other people. But Greeks are also open-minded, creative, flexible and hospitable. I think sometimes if we could combine the two it would be the perfect blend.  

This article has been translated from HuffPost Greece, and adapted for an international audience. The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Read the original story here.

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