Thursday, 18 October 2012


Crete's climate and relaxed lifestyle draw a wide range of people to the island: Greeks from the mainland and immigrants from Eastern Europe have made the island their home, as well as a certain class of immigrant that is never called an immigrant: the retired ex-pat. A high number of Northern Europeans have settled on the island, often buying or renting property built exclusively for them, while some have chosen to renovate old Cretan homes in remote villages. The largest group of ex-pats come from the UK.

On their choice of migrating to live out their retirement years, the Brits could be said to differ from the Greeks in that they choose to leave their homeland and move to a foreign one, a country whose language they usually do not speak, a situation facilitated by people's increased reliance on the internet. But at the same time, they exhibit a similarity with Greek immigrants abroad, who often wish to come back home to live their retirement years in their ancestors' country. Although Greece is not a Briton's home country, the fact that Britons choose a place like Crete to reitre could be for similar reasons as those of their immigrant Greek counterparts - they want the last years of their life to be spent somewhere nice. Crete is one of those places that attracts ex-pats, mainly due to its climate, landscape, good food and laid-back lifestyle.

The Apokoronas region in Hania is a popular choice of residence among ex-pats, who buy or rent new modern homes or renovate old ones. The population of the village of Plaka (below the hill in the photo)has doubled to 400 in the last decade - half the residents are ex-pats.
But the ex-pat is not of Greek origin, and the way the ex-pat wants to retire is quite different from the way the Greek (whether immigrant or not) would want to retire, the main difference being that an ex-pat is quite happy to leave friends, and more importantly, family including children back 'home' (or in any other part of the world), and come to live in a place where they don't know anyone. On this point, Greeks prefer to live close to their children and the biggest move they may make in retirement is to live in a rural setting instead of an urban setting where they may have worked. Greeks from Greece don't usually change country when they retire; like their European counterparts, they know the virtues of their country, and how these virtues are valued by non-Greeks. This tells us a lot about Greece: it's really quite a good place to live, as long as you can afford it.

Online forums set up by ex-pats are available for information and advice-sharing for Northern Europeans thinking of retiring in Greece. Ex-pats usually choose a place to retire based on their preferences for landscape. Many ex-pats prefer remote mountain villages. In the past, construction companies did a roaring trade selling newly built houses to ex-pats, creating ex-pat enclaves in areas of Crete that were on the verge of dying out as inhabited places. This had a positive effect in terms of resurrecting dying villages; a side-effect was the change in the micro-climate of the area due to the presence of large swimming pools in private homes and housing estates. Despite being surrounded by the sea, ex-pats regard swimming pools as a necessary part of a house.  Few locals share this opinion: swimming pools are viewed as luxury items whose outlay and maintenance is not really affordable, and anyway, the sea is always closeby for swimming; pools are generally viewed as an element of a luxury lifestyle which only the very rich can afford to maintain.

I was recently looking through one of the ex-pat forums to help a friend who was interested in ex-pat issues. One of the most popular discussions on those forums is the issue of the transportation of cheaper-priced UK goods to Crete. Certain (mainly) imported items are available very cheaply in the UK, whereas in Greece, shoppers are required to pay a premium for brand labels, mainly non-perishable goods such as cosmetics and personal care products, eg  shampoos, washing powder, deodorants, etc. It goes without saying that all such products are available cheaply on the island in other forms (not as brand labels, but as private labels), but in the UK, even brand-label goods are available at a heavy discount in high street stores (not just online). When you make a decision to move away from home country, you often don't realise what the daily cost of living is there; it's possibly based on costs like the cost of a house, utilities and how much a good meal out costs (which of course, is far cheaper in Crete than it is in the UK); it's not based on the cost of what may be considered a basic supermarket item in your own home, eg brand-label soap.

Ex-pats have quite a different relationship with money compared to the locals. For example, the price of Listerine (an imported good in Crete) will cause them much more anguish than the price of a car. During your time as an ex-pat in Crete, you will probably buy a car just once; if you are good at bargaining, you will get a good price for it. But if you are used to using a capful of Listerine (as the instructions say) twice a day for oral health and daily freshness, you will need to buy Listerine regularly, which costs approximately twice as much (or more, depending on where you buy it) in Crete as it does in the UK. When you've gotten used to spending very little of your income on bulk-buy brand labels (at places like Poundland), it feels as though you are downsizing when you realise you are forced to buy private labels instead of brand labels for similar goods that do the same job, and if you do insist on brand labels, your disposable income will suddenly be disposed of rather more quickly than you thought it would. Ex-pats try to reduce their living costs on Crete by buying from the UK what they consider to be basic non-perishable goods, and then have them shipped to Crete. In all fairness, many ex-pats came to Crete during the time when the UK pound was equal to €1.47; it went down to as low as €1.07 at one point (now it is approx €1.23), which means that the ex-pats will have been caught short for a time - I did hear about a small number leaving the island because they couldn't afford to live here any longer on that basis.

Then there's their relationship with food. If you are the must-have-a-swimming-pool type, you probably aren't the grow-your-own-veg type, a common activity of the retired local. Swimming pools are probably surrounded by lawns, not zucchini plants. Most ex-pats love to go out for a meal (which may say something about their cooking skills). But Crete is not an all-year-round warm weather destination, so the tavernas that most ex-pats frequent in the villages often close down during the off-season (end of October to end of March). Their 'local' probably won't be operating in the winter. A meal out at least once a week is seen as a necessity by most ex-pats (speaking on behalf of myself, it's not really affordable these days in the eyes of most locals). This gives us a fair idea of how much more money ex-pats retire with here.

In terms of food shopping, the typical ex-pat makes a regular shopping trip at a supermarket once a fortnight. You will often come across ex-pats shopping in LIDL (a well-known German discount supermarket with scathingly competitive pricing) and Carrefour (which sells mainly imported goods at cheap prices). Their carts are usually filled with alcohol and petfood (both of which no doubt raise their shopping bills). They most likely use trips back home to stock up on favorite food items, eg Marmite (very scarce in Crete, and also very expensive when it is available), black tea (not very good quality in Crete, I'm afraid to say), packaged biscuits such as gingernuts (Greece has never really had a wide range of good quality tasty packaged biscuits, and those that are available are in a much more limited taste spectrum - ginger, for example, is not really popular among Greeks). You rarely find ex-pats shopping at INKA, a Hania-based supermarket chain that sells many local food products that locals buy to cook basic Cretan meals, or AB Vasilopoulos, a gourmet Greek supermarket chain which sells national (rather than local) fresh food and gourmet imported products, (albeit at a price premium). My guess is that they have been into INKA and seen the prices for Cretan food products, like graviera (gruyere cheese) - anything from €12-18/kg: who could blame them?! Foreign cheese varieites are also available (eg Pilgrim's Choice cheddar), but as imported products, they are much more expensively priced here than what they would cost in the UK.

Another reason for not choosing a Cretan supermarket for food shopping could also lie in the fact that if you have not been brought up to prepare Cretan dishes, you will probably not be able to use local food products easily and quickly in your daily cooking routine; even Cretan paximadi takes some getting used to if you've been used to always having bagels instead of rusks on hand, or fromage frais instead of Greek yoghurt, or black tea instead of Cretan malotira. They most likely use trips back home to stock up on favorite food items, eg Marmite (very scarce in Crete, and also very expensive when it is available), black tea (not very good quality in Crete, I'm afraid to say and imported goods are over-priced, as usual), packaged biscuits such as gingernuts (Greece has never really had a wide range of good quality tasty packaged biscuits, and those that are available are in a much more limited taste spectrum - ginger, for example, is not really popular among Greeks).  

The typical ex-pat in Crete is in a relationship, owns his/her own home with a swimming pool, doesn't have any dependent children, does not live with their children, travels back to the UK at least once a year, is in their mid-50s and is retired. The latter will naturally strike most Greeks as odd because of the tirades that we have had to put up with from Northern Europeans that Greeks are lazy and retire much earlier than people in the UK and Germany; at a time when most retired Greeks, whether they have taken early retirement like the ex-pats or not, are probably living off about €8-10,000 euros a year (sometimes between two people), supporting both children and grandchildren, ex-pats live off a pension from €12,000 to anything up to €20,000 per person per year. Most ex-pats have some kind of private pension fund which they are drawing from before they begin to receive a state pension, which will up their income at a later date, an unlikely prospect for most Greeks; Greeks in early retirement are most likely drawing a state-funded pension, and they most likely belong to the category of special occupations, eg policeman, military personnel, etc, jobs which also fall into the 'special category' professions in the UK, who can also retire early. 

The extent to which the ex-pat has acclimatised to the Greek way of life, or more to the point, the Cretan lifestyle concerning my island, is divided 50/50 between those who have integrated into the wider village community, and those who have maintained their own customs from their home country. Although they don't generally have a family to look after (or to look after them), those who have adopted a Greeker way of life are inclined to grow some food in their garden, including picking some olives to produce their own supply of olive oil. They are also likely to cook most of their own meals, and enjoy taking part in inexpensive activities within the locality they reside (especially more so now that petrol is expensive). 

On the other end of the scale, their more "British" counterparts prefer to go out for a meal on a frequent basis, ordering according to more urban/global standards: a meal will begin with an aperitif, it will include bottled alcohol, and it may finish with an Irish coffee (Cretans are unlikely to order alcoholic drinks before and after a village taverna meal). They are more likely to spend more money per person on a meal out than their "more Greek" counterparts, some of whom claim to eat out at a cost of  €10-12 per head (ie the same price that my own family pays for a taverna meal, or much less at a snack/souvlaki bar), which is about twice that of the "more British" group (€20 per head). The "more British" group is likely to spend more per person on a meal out in Crete because they are using a measure closer to the British standard. At the same time, they may simply have more disposable income than their "more Greek" counterparts. It is likely that people who have made a decision to leave their home country in their retirement and try to live out the later years of their life in a new country will try to live sustainably within their means, especially when their stay is intended to be a long-term more permanent one.

Generally speaking, whatever their income level and expenses in Crete, ex-pats will agree on two things: Crete is a nicer place to live all year round than anywhere in the UK; despite all the rising taxes that home owners in Greece are now facing, living in your own home in Crete is generally much cheaper than living in your own home in the UK; and the better climate in Crete allows you to live in a way that you would never have imagined in the UK. This all points to a higher quality of life in Crete rather than Northern Europe: as one of the forum members stated, you can be 'life-rich and cash-poor' in Crete, something that is not so feasible in the UK, since the cost of living is more expensive there, although there are hardship benefits for those hard-up there, unlike in Greece, where many pensioners are now being forced to live on €326 (that's what my mother-in-law has been receiving since June 2012). But while Greeks have a family or village connection to fall back on in hard times, ex-pats do not, so they are often amazed with the way that locals give them food (and alcohol), or treat them to something extra in their taverna/cafe, since they know that these people are cash-poor.

Although ex-pats are mainly retired people, or they are simply tired of living the routine they were used to in their home country, they still like to be active, especially mentally.  A good example of this is their charity work: they are heavily involved creating events like the annual CIC Christmas bazaar held in Hania, whose proceeds all go to local charity groups. Retired Greeks' charity interests are mainly home-based, eg looking after children, growing food for the family, etc; in Greeks' case, charity really does begin in the home environment, as the saying goes. 

To gain the above insights into ex-pats' lives in Crete, I used the BritsInCrete forum pages, which are open for public viewing. They tend to show that ex-pats (like their local Cretan counterparts) generally like to live within their means, which vary from one individual to another. The conclusion is that some of us have more money than others, which means we can live very well, but even if we don't have as much money as those lucky others, we can still live very well in Crete.

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