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The great leap abroad: Why young Greeks are leaving the homeland

By Elias Maglinis

There?s a song by alternative UK band Snow Patrol, ?Run,? that goes something like this: ?I know we?ll make it anywhere/Away from here.? Though the rest of the song is sentimentally charged, those words are well suited to a number of young professional Greeks who are currently leaving their country behind in a rather hurried manner.

Was 35-year-old Arhondi Korka thinking of Britpop when she decided to move to London six months ago? Probably not, because when your life is about to change so drastically, your mind is not so much on songs, but rather on that great leap into the unknown.

A graduate of communication and mass media studies at the University of Athens, Korka also studied at the British Council, before getting a postgraduate cultural management and communication degree at Panteion University in Athens. She speaks English, French and Spanish. In the last 13 years she has worked in the publishing sector, as a translator, editor and book reviewer (For Eleftherotypia?s Vivliothiki supplement and the Athens Review of Books), and she is a member of the editorial team of online arts and letters magazine Critique.gr.

?Up to March 2010 I was working in Athens as a self-employed professional,? Korka said in a phone interview from London. ?Besides book-related projects, I also collaborated with construction companies, translating legal texts, among other things. In the end I was exhausted by the country?s working conditions.?

Meaning?

?Besides the lack of meritocracy and nepotism, Greece is a small country, the market is small, everybody knows each other and I think that this is no longer a positive thing. The personal gets in the way of the professional and your CV doesn?t matter as much as who you know and who knows you. You can no longer separate the two, the private from the professional, and because I?ve been increasingly witnessing this truly awful mentality being reproduced by my generation, I wanted to get away from it all and go somewhere where no one knows me. Somewhere where I will be judged on my knowledge and abilities and nothing else.?

Naturally, the crisis played a major in her decision to leave Greece: ?Self-employed professionals suffer the most. The VAT hike was deadly; then there?s the self-employed professionals? insurance fund and all the operating costs, not to mention that for some people the crisis became a pretext to pay you after six months, if not more. Intellectual work is undervalued in Greece, both financially and morally. If you?re a translator or a writer, you don?t make anything, so you can do it for free. The crisis reinforced this mentality. Generally speaking, going away was a thought I had been nurturing for a while and the crisis gave me the incentive to actually make the move.?

So Korka started forwarding her CV to various companies based in London. Though she knew no one in her professional arena, she did have an advantage: Her brother has been a resident of London for the last 12 years and so she had a place to stay.

?This was very important because it is very difficult to look for a job and pay rent on top of it. Job hunting in a foreign country is tough work, you need a strong stomach and a huge amount of patience, patience which have you already exhausted in Greece.?

In the end, after a three-and-a-half month search, eight hours a day and on a daily basis, Korka landed a job in July. She sounds pleased with her new professional environment.

?Well, you do have to get used to a new reality. For example, you get a one-hour break at lunchtime, when you are free to do whatever you like, provided you?re back in an hour. Your work day is over at 5.30 p.m. Occasionally, when I?m working on my own projects, I might stay in the office a little bit longer, but never on my superior?s account. On top of it all, you don?t get anyone yelling over your shoulder. We have a meeting at the beginning of each week, we get organized and then we go about working on our own stuff until the end of the week, when we have another meeting and see our progress. In this way, you are able to work freely and carry out your responsibilities.?

A feeling of vindication

Do you feel that your Greek identity has been a determining factor in the way you are treated in Britain?

Yes. Both during interviews and at work I have been treated with a combination of suspicion and compassion. At some point someone said to me, ?I would like to buy a Greek island but I?m not willing to spend anything above 10 pounds.? So I said to him, ?Give me another 10 and you can the Acropolis as well.? You need a sense of humor to deal with all this and the British use their own sense of humor in a major way. Generally speaking, however, they are not very knowledgeable when it come to Greece, they don?t really bother with the country.

One way or another, six months after moving to London I feel vindicated. When you manage to get a job here, you feel something between relief and bitterness -- bitter because you couldn?t find a similar job in your country, which, mind you, I?m still contributing to, through taxes, for instance, even though I closed my business accounts in August. I did so feeling a great sense of joy -- the same kind of joy I felt when I started them in the first place.

I feel very fortunate in that I?m working on what I had originally planned to do, even though today?s reality has nothing to do with the way I had envisioned things. While I?m constantly learning new things, I?m also discovering and regaining a small portion of my own optimism, something which I had lost back in Greece. It?s very serious when you lose it and very important when you find it again.

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