February 20, 2014 stefivos

Three years abroad: the account of an expat

Translated by New Diaspora

Today it’s been 3 years I’ve been living in the UK; an immigrant, just like my grandparents back in the 50s. The following story is an account of these years, but, at the same time, a confession of things that only few people know about me.

I decided to leave Greece when I started feeling sorry for myself. I was 26 years old, I had just completed my military service, I was living again with my parents and I had spent my whole summer working as a waiter at our family-run restaurant, which we had to close down a year later, unable to cope with the economic crisis and the consequences of all-inclusive tourism.

8 years after spreading my wings away from home, I was back to square one. I was feeling like a volcano about to erupt. I couldn’t stand being unemployed. So frustrating, so humiliating. No offence to anyone unemployed; I’m only talking about my personal feelings here.

I started applying for jobs in the UK, mainly because I couldn’t speak any other language, apart from some everyday Italian. A month later, I got my first (and last) interview. I booked my flights and left without a second thought. It was a bad week for the UK, with loads of snow disrupting flights and trains. But I was so determined to get to that interview that I would even crawl there. Thankfully, I finally arrived in Bournemouth, a southern coastal town in Dorset, without any major issues.

Back then I was a Psychology graduate, holding a master’s degree in Psychology and Mass Media. The job title I was going for was “support worker”. Few I knew about the duties it was coming with, but I would very soon find out. It was a mixture of nursing, activity coordinating and psychology. It went from changing old people’s diapers to taking them out for bowling.

I had never imagined I could do that. But I did. Ι never told my friends the whole truth until now. Ιt would sound bizarre that I became and immigrant just to change diapers.

But I felt I was caring for those people and at the same time I was making my own money. I was independent again. I knew there was nothing to be ashamed of. I had been ashamed of myself only once, back to when I was offering nothing to no one and I had to ask my parents to chip in for my coffee.

“Keep calm and carry on” was a 1939 motivational poster published in limited copies by the UK government in an attempt to raise the morale in major cities where air strikes were expected. I don’t know if it worked back then, but it did work for me as I was checking that poster every day, as it was hanging on one of our kitchen’s walls.

I was living in a room much smaller than the reception room of my student flat in Athens. But I had already decided that I would soon leave Bournemouth, so I did not make any friendships. For 9 months, my only itinerary was from home to work and back. I had enough time to work on my writing and this is exactly what I did. I self-published a short story collection and a novel, which I also translated to English and then published on Amazon.

I may have been changing diapers on a daily basis, but at the same time I was making my dreams come true; I was publishing my books and I was receiving some positive feedback. It was the greatest oxymoron I ever experienced, but it was the first time in my life I was so focused on something.

8 months after I had moved to Bournemouth, I decided to look for a job in London. I sent out five applications and got three interviews. On the train for the third one, I told myself that if I did not get that job, I would remain in Bournemouth to finish my novel. After I had done so, I would leave. To anywhere.

I eventually got the job and moved to London, where I have been living for the past 2 years. I have been working in an acute mental health ward, an environment that can be very arduous at times. I am not changing diapers anymore, but the unpleasant side of my job involves restraining violent patients, putting up with verbal abuse and many other things that can easily make you break down.

For the past 2,5 months, though, I am on secondment as a Distance Learning Coordinator. A 9-5 job until the end of March. After that I may go back to the ward. Who knows.

A lot of things happened in these 3 years. I travelled to Luxembourg, Austria, Italy, Germany, Norway, Argentina and Tierra del Fuego. Don’t get excited. All the inter-European flights were low-cost and I was usually staying at friends’.

I met interesting people. I tasted several national cuisines. I had some nice walks talking about everything. I met my girlfriend and moved in together with her. I signed a contract with a publisher. I built my website and now I’m building another one. And I am still working on the novel I wanted to finish two years ago.

London is a big city, a great city. A metropolis. But it is very expensive, even for those who earn a lot. My wages lie below the average income of £26,500 (€32.300) pro rata, Even without unnecessary spending, you can’t save anything, when 60% of your monthly salary goes straight to your rent and travel card.

Most of my friends think I am taking the piss. Like the majority in Greece, they think that because I live in London, my life resembles the ones of the “Love Actually” characters. Guys, honestly, not even close. Greek Londoners are in thousands. Many of them work in banks, international groups, IT companies. They may make good money, but they usually work till late at night. On the contrary, I work normal hours, but I’m not making even half as much.

It is an absolute truth that a few among us are what we call big fat Greek assholes. They still speak broken English after 10 years here, they spend all their money on designer clothes and fancy restaurants, they moan about everything English, and cannot stop thinking about summer vacation in Greece. However, when they do go back they brag about their trips and describe London as the promised land. I want to think of them as a minority, but, sadly, they are the ones making the most noise.

I can’t talk for other countries, but England’s (and especially London’s) social classification is so rigid that you can’t lead a full life and save money at the same time. It’s one or the other. That’s why, after 3 years, working in low-paid jobs in the NHS sector, not only I have no savings, but I am also struggling to pay off my credit card. I have no regrets though, since I couldn’t do otherwise. What would I sacrifice? The 180 pounds for a weekend in Norway, or the 10 pounds a pizza costs me?

I have no idea where this road is taking me. What’s the point of migrating if you end up giving away what you earn? Of course, you gain a lot of experiences, but these ones will never help you cover your bills.

It’s not easy living abroad. Unlike 50-100 years ago, the current financial crisis is global. You either get high unemployment and low wages or high wages and an even higher cost of living. At the same time, you have to deal with various urban legends: for foreigners, you are a bankrupt and lazy Greek. For your compatriots back home, you are a well-off “neomigrant” who complains for no reason.

Despite all the aforementioned though, I would not go back to Greece. Unemployment apart, I would also have to put up with conservatism, corruption, pathological apathy, amateurism and fake comfort zones.

To be fair, though, I have to admit that there are a lot of positive movements taking place. I hope they get to be successful, but I doubt it. I can’t but be pessimistic. I’m afraid that Greece is a black hole that sucks everything ­- no exceptions. A Siren that is luring you with its beautiful song, just to knock you dead as soon as you go nearby.

Three years later, the account of migrating to and living in the UK is positive; but not as positive as I once hoped for. I only wonder whether this is merely my conclusion or one that other young people abroad share.

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stefivos Nothing to declare.