By Benjamin Wylie-Black*
Following on from a recent article about the decision not to open our hotel in Crete for 2020, there was a small backlash centering around the belief that we could afford to make this decision and that many Greeks had piles of cash hidden away to see them through the hard times and into the new year and season quite comfortably.
For many of us living in Greece this is simply not the case — but it is a lingering perception many outsiders have about one of their favorite holiday destinations.
There are many types of people who live here in Greece, but more specifically on Crete, aside from the local population of course.
You have the generation of expats (from all over the world and Europe) who came on holiday back in their younger days and found a love, either of the country or a local, living out their Shirley Valentine fantasy.
Then you have those who have moved here to retire or are on medical disability in their own countries and would rather while away their days soaking up the vitamin D of the Cretan sun — and the “vitamin Raki” from the local tavernas and bars.
Then there is the group of us who saw an opportunity to change the path our lives were taking and make the decision to move to Crete to set up a business and make a new life in a country with a different appeal from our countries of origin.
Whilst it is true that many of the local Cretans, and their families, do have olive trees, a plant that is ubiquitous here on the island, making a carpet of green and silver as far as the eye can see, the income and resource that comes from these trees does not grow in the form of Euros hanging at the end of the branches ripe for the picking.
Instead, there is a great deal of work and risk invested in the “green gold” that many around the world to add to their cooking pots and evening meals.
The risk involved was really brought home during the 2019 to 2020 winter when an infestation decimated many of the olives, leaving them worth little more than compost rather than the famously low-acidity olive oil.
For the rest of us, we must make do to balance the lifestyle we have chosen with the considerably lower remuneration we receive for our efforts.
Cretans embody the simile of the swan on water
The Cretan people, and those who acclimatize to the lifestyle here, are skilled at making it look easy. An important thing here is that there is always time for coffee. It is quite the local skill to be able to make a Freddo Espresso last long enough for the ice to melt and, if we are lucky enough to enjoy this sitting at a cafe or bar, then to combine this with conversation. b
But do not mistake us for being lazy.
The Cretan people really do embody the simile of the swan swimming in the water. On the surface, we move through the season with grace and our hearts open, a big and genuine smile of welcome on our faces and a twinkle of recognition in our eyes when we see tourists we recognize from the years previous.
We identify that spark growing in their own eyes as their love of, and pull towards, the island as it grows every time they visit.
Under the waterline is a different story
Under the water, many of the Cretans are working nearly seven days a week, thinking about what they will do on their two days off per month. Will they go to the beach and socialize with friends and family, or will they fall into a delirious coma, trying to avoid the heat of the high season?
For the more fortunate workers in the tourist industry their working week is just six days per week, eight hours a day, and this we do for the six or seven months of the summer season in the tourist industry.
For those who are employed legally, their employer pays an insurance called IKA, similar to the National Insurance in the UK, although quite a bit more in terms of cost. These monies, which are paid to the government, will go towards the employees’ pensions and, if they cannot find work during the winter, it will pay out something during the winter months.
Not bad, working seven months and then getting paid to sit at home in the winter, right? Wrong.
Most employees are lucky to walk away with somewhere between €800 – €1000 (if you are very lucky) per month when they work full-time; often their wages are much lower. From this we have our usual daily living costs, including rent, mobile phone bills, internet, travel to and from work, and food of course.
Then when our working day is done, we head home and cook for our families, clean our houses and maybe sit down for 30 minutes before we climb into bed and get as much sleep as is possible in 30 degrees C (86 degrees F) at night before getting up early the next day to prepare food for the family and get ready for work.
Tough winter months
Then comes the winter and the employees get fired because the direct flights to the islands stop at the end of October and the tourist industry comes to a crashing halt, placed on the back burner until April or May of the next year. But remember that money that the employers paid for their staff? Well, lets get that ball rolling now we are unemployed and it’s winter.
So, as the unemployment office opens its doors, the hordes of the newly laid off make their way to register their new unemployment status. This involves getting up whilst it is still dark outside at an hour that most of the tourists were returning to their hotel rooms after a night out or at the hotel bar during their holidays.
Those who make this journey to their regional unemployment office in the vain hopes of being one of the first people there then turn the corner and see that the door is already surrounded by a mass of people who wouldn’t look out of place at a football stadium — all hoping they get a number that will be called once it opens, two hours later at 8 am.
Once one finally gets the lucky number which gives you access to a representative of the unemployment office, and given that you have every scrap of paper you need to complete the process (if saving trees was a thing, they would be running from Greece for the amount of paperwork we need here on a daily basis) then you are now entitled to the unemployment payment.
That is, as long as you are available for work and do not leave the country, even though this is the only time of the year when we can actually travel because we’ve been working everyday and don’t get holidays during the working period, but all is good once again because we have money to look forward to…
The winter payment is not available for all, however. You have to have had your IKA paid for two years before you are entitled to any financial support — a great idea that ensures that the recipient is paying into the system and contributing to the country before they can get anything back.
And you have to be an employee — not a business owner or self-employed.
Then you can get three or four months’ payments, maximum, and it is just over €400 per month per person, and all your living costs remain the same and the food still needs put on the table.
Additionally, that payment will stop once your months are up regardless of the fact that you still have three months until you can start working again in the tourist industry.
Lifestyle change worth more than material world
Don’t mistake me, we have all made the decision to move and live our lives in Greece, and Crete, many of us giving up well-paid, year-round jobs in our original countries.
But we did so because the change in lifestyle is worth far more than the material worlds we have left behind and, once you get past the shock of your first year and you learn the system and really start to acclimate, you learn to make adjustments to your life expectations, as well as spending.
We learn to enjoy the sun and the empty beaches in November when we get a second spike in the weather and can sprawl out to get our tan on more than our arms and necks. We play badminton with friends or go on walks through the wilderness of the island without having to keep an eye out for lost tourists.
But make no mistake, we may look like we have the best balance of life and money, but that’s because we have learned to have different values and priorities. It does not mean that we’re all sitting at home counting our rolls of cash that we have stuffed up the chimney during the winter and cackling as we wait for the tourists to return.
And of course, our six months of winter is never six months of no work. If we, as business owners and friends and families, are lucky we get to relax for November and December and then with the new year comes the preparation work in our businesses to repair the ravages of the winter and the previous season to get ready for the new arrivals and return of our foreign friends once again.
Then the world goes and throws something like COVID-19 into the mix.
But this gives us another opportunity to appreciate the Greek and Cretan nature of community, family and hospitality, which truly shine through, and we are reminded once again why we moved here to this slice of paradise.
*Benjamin Wylie-Black is the owner of the Home Hotel, located 3 km (1.8 miles) from the heart of Hersonissos, known for its dynamic nightlife, its many scenic charms and wonderful beaches.