Thessaloniki, Greece Report of what it's like to live there

Personal Experiences from Thessaloniki, Greece

Thessaloniki, Greece 07/20/06

Background:

1. How long have you lived here?

11 months since September 1, 2005.

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2. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Assignment.

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3. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

9+ hours to NYC.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Most Americans live in the ritzy suburb called Panorama which is about 20-50 minutes from downtown depending upon the traffic. Otherwise, those who live downtown are in small apartments. Traffic is horrible. Greece has one of the highest EU rates for car ownership.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Most urban Thessalonians still shop at their small neighborhood stores. These stores come in a variety of distinct flavors: bakeries, pastry shops, butchers, cheese merchants, produce sellers, grocers, and fishmongers. All provide a wide selection of quality products. Additionally, there is a large, covered central market area in the city center that sells regional produce and other foodstuffs, and many neighborhoods have weekly farmers’ markets. The fresh fruits and vegetables are usually of excellent quality and relatively inexpensive, although more seasonal than in the U.S. Seafood is readily available, but often rather pricey. Cheeses and dairy products are excellent, but you must be careful to check expiration dates.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

More outdoor, sporting equipment like skis, running gear, bikes, etc. These larger ticket items are very expensive in Greece. English language books here are also very expensive.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

McDonald's is here! Where is there not a McDonald's? Although the local fast food chain GOODY'S is just as good, and just as inexpensive. Most Greeks do not eat at McDonald's.

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Daily Life:

1. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

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2. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I personally don't have an ATM card but I know that there are numerous ATMs throughout the city. They all charge a fee of course. Some people have problems withdrawing large amount of Euros from an ATM machine, with €600 is the maximum. I am told however that you can increase this amount by making a call to your bank in the U.S. prior to withdrawing money from an ATM. Checks are rarely accepted, and when they are, fees to cash them are high.

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3. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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4. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Nearly two dozen television stations broadcast locally around the clock. Most programs are in Greek, but normally there are one or two English-language movies on each evening as well as National Geographic and other documentaries. Many more American movies are broadcast late in the evening, usually after midnight. U.S. network evening news broadcasts are shown live early each morning. Satellite service is available free with a dish, but offers only a few channels in English, with the remainder broadcasting in French, Italian, German, and Polish. New local subscription satellite services have significantly more English content. Pay cable TV includes movie and cartoon channels. Many shops rent SECAM videos and European-coded DVDs inexpensively. There are many radio stations, some featuring a mix of Greek and American music.

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Most Greeks speak English or at least have a working knowledge. Of course, knowing a few words in Greek goes a long way with the locals, as Greeks are very proud of their language.

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

I could imagine that it would be very difficult to get around the city. Public transportation is few and far between. Not too many restaurants or shops have access for people with disabilities.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

People drive on the right hand side of the road.

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2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis in the city are numerous and inexpensive, if a bit feisty. Drivers routinely pick up other passengers en route and often refuse to take customers to destinations deemed inconvenient. Radio taxis can be ordered at a slight additional cost but are sometimes unavailable at peak hours. Buses are frequent and inexpensive, but often crowded. Traffic is heavy in the city center — often at unusual hours by U.S. standards — but generally acceptable in most other neighborhoods. Many city streets are one-way, causing additional confusion. Street parking is difficult everywhere in town. Minor streets are very narrow and crowded with parked cars. Inter-city roads are well-marked, but of wildly varying quality. Road surfaces are more slippery than in the U.S. and stopping distances longer. There is no metro in Thessaloniki at the moment, but the city has just started a metro project expected to take 6 years to finish [Athens' metro in comparison took 10 years to finish because of constant archeological finds under the city.] Trains to Athens and to neighboring countries like Bulgaria and Turkey are frequent and inexpensive.

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3. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

You should buy an economical car! Right now, gas is 1.09 euros per liter, that's about 4 euros per gallon or roughly, $5.00 a gallon. I own a large 4x4 SUV Jeep Cherokee and although I love my SUV, like most Americans, it costs roughly 80 euros (or $100 USD) for one tank of gas. Indeed, I am regreting buying such a large, gas guzzling, car that gets about 20 mpg. With that said, you don't need an SUV for short distances around the city, although I've used it when it snowed (yes, snow in Greece) in Panorama in the winter. Automotive repair is readily available in Thessaloniki, although spare parts for American and some other non-European models are hard to obtain. Ford, Honda, Chrysler (Jeep only), Toyota, Hyundai, and all European manufacturers have service and parts facilities in the city, but may be unfamiliar with models not sold in Europe.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Although Greeks have one of the lowest EU average internet use rates, the service is fast and reliable and surprisingly, relatively inexpensive. I pay about US$30 a month for ADSL after spending approximately $100 for hook-up fees. ISDN lines with a speed of up to 128.0 KB is available. Newer broadband ADSL Technology is available at speeds ranging between 384 KBPS up to 1 GB.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Every Greek has at least one cell phone; they are ubiquitous and reasonably priced.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

I use the Embassy's IVG line which is not, of course, available to the general public. Many people use calling cards. I brought an MCI prepaid calling card from the States that has a free local access telephone number, which I use for emergencies. I am told, however, that rates on the local market are much cheaper.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Even though I don't own a pet, I know there is a kennel out by Cosmos Mediterranean, the shopping mall close to the airport. I know vets, of course, exist but since I don't own a pouch, I don't have any personal knowledge.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

There are jobs, but wages are generally, very low. Thessaloniki has a high unemployment rate, much higher than Athens, which is roughly over 10%.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

The Thessalonikans brag that they are better dressed than their Athenian counterparts and I agree! They are very stylish. There are sales only twice per year, once in the winter and once in the summer. The women dress up at all hours of the day, even on a Saturday morning to go grocery shopping!

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Unhealthy.

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Small, petty thefts. Purse snatching.

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Local dental and optical services are good. As in the rest of Greece, Thessaloniki’s public hospitals provide nearly free healthcare; however, most foreigners choose to use the private hospitals. The InterBalkan Medical Center, a state-of-the-art private hospital affiliated with the Medical Center Hospital in Athens, opened in 2000. Many physicians speak English and are U.S. trained.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Very hot in the summer. Winters are mild although we had four snow days last winter at my son's school, which was unusual. At most, we had 12 inches at one time, virtually no snow in the city center.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

My son attends Pinewood the American School and I am a board member. Pinewood has been around for over 50 years and is the only entirely English speaking school in the city. The Pinewood Schools Association, Inc., is a private, nonprofit corporation providing pre-kindergarten (ages 3 and 4) through grade 12 education for English-speaking, mostly non-Greek children. The school year consists of two semesters running from early September to early January and from mid-January to mid-June with a two-week Easter/Spring Break. Curricula, teaching plans, and materials conform to U.S. standards, and the school has been accredited in the U.S. An elected 11-member board, including the U.S. Consul General as an ex officio member, governs the school. Pinewood has 19 full-time and 16 part-time teachers, about half of whom are American. Total enrollment averages 207 children. Roughly a quarter of the students are American and the rest are a diverse group from 32 different countries. With a student-to-teacher ratio of around 10:1, classes are normally small with frequent individual attention.

Pinewood has decently equipped and maintained facilities, including a chemistry/biology laboratory, small gym/auditorium, library/audio-visual center, music and art rooms, and computer room. The school offers instruction in music and Greek and provides a limited after-school activities program. There is an on-campus snack bar, and school bus service is available to most areas. Pinewood can be contacted at: Director Pinewood Schools Association, P.O. Box 21001, 555 10 Pilea, Thessaloniki, Greece. Tel.:30–2310–301–221 Fax: 30–2310–323–196 E-mail: pinewood@spark.net.gr.

I have been very satisfied with the classroom size.

In the second grade, my son Alexander had only 6 boys in his entire class: 3 Greek-Americans, one from Finland, one from Bulgaria and one Canadian-Albanian. It is indeed a very international school. The American College of Thessaloniki provides a U.S.-accredited, liberal arts undergraduate education in English. Additional information is available at the: American College of Thessaloniki, c/o Anatolia College, P.O. Box 21021, 555 10 Pilea, Thessaloniki, Greece. Tel.: 30–2310–316–740 Fax: 30–2310–301–076 The Aristotle University in Thessaloniki offers (in Greek) a foreign-students program, including an excellent intensive Greek course that does not require applicants to take an entrance examination. City University offers part-time (day and evening) undergraduate and graduate classes in English through the University of Sheffield (England). Other than the American Community Schools in Athens, the nearest suitable boarding schools are in Austria, Italy, Switzerland, or France.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I don't know of any.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

I have a full-time nanny who lives in my home. She has been with us for 8+ years. Preschool and daycare in general are limited. There is a small preschool in Panorama called Pinnochio's and it is very nice, but I hear it's also very expense. Pinewood has several after-school programs which can keep the children in school up until 4:30 p.m. and home by 5:00 p.m., if your children are on the bus route. I am told that full-time domestic help is difficult to obtain, and wages are high. Part-time help is reasonably available for about US$40–$50 for a 6–8 hour day. English-speaking childcare for evenings can be located with a little persistence, but is also difficult to find.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

There are about 5,000 American citizens in Thessaloniki, and in Northern Greece, there are about 11,000 American Citizens. Most of them are Greek-Americans. Since Thessaloniki boarders 4 countries: Albania, the Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, expect to find many people from the Balkans. CEDEFOP is the only EU institution in the city and employs over 100 Europeans from throughout the EU-25.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Thessaloniki has an active nightlife centering on the three expanding club districts and a strip of cafes along the waterfront. Clubs are loud, smoky, trendy, and packed. The more popular places often charge significant covers even for nights with recorded music. Hyatt Regency operates an upscale casino just outside the city that features slots and gaming tables. Two large nightclub and open-air theater complexes just beyond the western edge of the city offer a variety of jazz, rock, and (Greek) comedy performances. Thessaloniki is reputed to have over 3,000 restaurants, including hundreds of charming Greek restaurants and tavernas, many of them featuring al fresco dining. Non-Greek cuisine is confined to a few Italian, French, European, American, Mexican, Japanese and Chinese restaurants of varying quality. McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, TGI Friday’s, Haagen Dazs, and Starbucks have outlets in the city, but not all foreign chains operating in Athens have opened in Thessaloniki.

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3. Morale among expats:

GREAT! I have met many non-Greek Europeans who fell in love with Greece, in general, and Thessaloniki, in particular, and have made this great city their home.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Great city for families.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

No experience. I do know of one lesbian bar in Laladika and there is a small gay community.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Even though 97% of Greeks identify with the Greek Orthodox Church, there are pockets of Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant faiths. The Greek Evangelical Church, located downtown, serves the small Greek Protestant community. The Church of the Immaculate Conception downtown holds Catholic Mass; services and sermons are in Greek and are in French on Sunday evenings. Confessions are heard in Greek, French, and Italian. An Anglican-Episcopal vicar conducts services in English on Sunday in the Armenian Church on Dialetti Street. A Synagogue with two downtown chapels serves the long-established Jewish community.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

My son plays tennis at a public tennis court 5 minutes from our home in Panorama. Several small but good tennis clubs are available through club membership. In addition to public and YMCA courts, Anatolia College rents two tennis courts during summer. The American Farm School also has a court available. The YMCA in the center of the city has a swimming pool, handball, and basketball courts, and offers aerobics, yoga, art classes, and other activities (in Greek). Several private gyms can be found throughout the city although prices are generally expensive. Northern Greece’s one golf course in located in Porto Carras, Sithonia.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Unique? The coffee is to die for ... so are the fruits, vegetables and fish. Unique items? Everything.

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9. Can you save money?

Yes and no. If you stay home and don't go out, of course you can save. But, with the Euro, Greece is a surprisingly expensive place, not like the Greece I remember from childhood.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Of course. I greatly enjoy living here and will be sad when my tour ends summer 2007.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Any bad attitudes! The other night, someone said that to love Greece and Thessaloniki, you have to have an open mind to look beyond the traffic, the pollution, the noise, the dust, and I agree. This is a wonderful place but don't expect things to run on time like in the U.S. or to always work.

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3. But don't forget your:

Sense of adventure.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Not related to Thessaloniki, specifically, but Greece, in general: Zorba The Greek, staring Anthony Quinn (1950s film, classic Black and White)

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7. Do you have any other comments?

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