Recently on a short break to Kolymbari in Crete, Navi and I had the pleasure to eat at a great traditional restaurant on the coast. We met a girl there called Julie. Julie was working front of house, using her English skills to good effect persuading hungry tourists like us to try some traditional local food. We ate there several times during our trip and were blown away, not only by the food but also Julie’s great personality. Julie had bags of stories and anecdotes about Crete and life in the States. Her experiences provided a fascinating peek into the world of an expat living and working in Greece. It also got me thinking – What is the cost of living in Greece? Could Navi and I live here in Greece for a while?
On our final day Julie kindly agreed to answer all our questions. Here’s her story.
Who are you are?
My name is Julie Rees
How old are you?
I am 43
Where were you born?
I was born in Athens, Greece.
Did you grow up there?
No, I grew up in Ohio. I left Athens when I was 4. My mother met a sailor that was stationed here from the States. He took me and my baby brother back to America with him.
Why did you leave America to come to Greece?
I got married in the States and then I got divorced. Twice. My uncle had passed away recently and I got tired of all the drama. I got tired of all the stress. I decided to leave Ohio at the age of 38. I had family in Greece so I took a flight to Athens with 120 Dollars in my pocket.
What happened then?
My half-sister was working in a souvlaki shop in Athens. She persuaded the chef to take me on in the kitchen. I didn’t really understand much Greek at this point. Most off what I know now I picked up working in the kitchens. I had basic duties, washing up making salads that kind of thing. I earned 30 Euro’s per day, 5 days per week. I met my boyfriend Dimitri in that souvlaki shop and we’ve been together ever since.
You mentioned you had family in Greece?
I didn’t see my biological dad from the age of 4. Then when I came back I finally found him. And I found my half-sister, my half-brother, I reunited with all my aunts and uncles that live here. Yeah, mostly aunts, uncles and cousins. Greek families are huge. It’s all about family in Greece. I also have a daughter and a son living in the US. My daughter is 22. She is staying with me in Crete at the moment. She goes home in a few days. I’m sad about that, but I know it’s what’s best for her. Her life is on hold while she’s here with me. My son is 20 and he’s still in school. They both stay with my mum and my dad.
You mean your step-dad?
No, I think of him as my dad. He was there for me the whole time. He raised me. He’s my dad.
My mum has been in America since she was 24. She doesn’t want to come back to Greece because she’s still working and she draws her social security because she is officially retired. She likes to stay busy. She cannot come here and just fish the rest of her years away. Every year she comes to stay with me and we travel together. We go to all the different islands.
My dad is a cross country truck driver. He’s 66. He’s so ready to retire. This is the stress I’m talking about in the States. He’s worrying about the next 5 years. Will he make enough money to get his social security?
How do you finance your life here?
Working at Koundouros.
Tell me about that.
We moved the restaurant here from Athens last year. The chef says it’s not because of the crisis but it is. Because everything there (Athens) is very difficult now for every building open. But we know here in Crete that the situation is better because everybody has their little gardens, they have their farm animals they have their olive trees. And he is originally from here anyway so his family and everybody he knows is here. He still wants to hold his head high. So we came here and we rent this building. 1200 Euro’s per month, plus the wines and all the food, plus paying 3 people in the kitchen and three people outside. It’s very expensive.
On October 28th everything closes down. The water rises due to the wind. Because it’s very very windy here. The water goes all the way up into the restaurant. So all the rear of the restaurant facing the sea will be closed. We’ll only be open in the front. We normally open up again after Easter.
I come in at 12pm every day and I normally stay until closing around 12am during the summer. When I decided to move here from Athens the boss had the idea that he was gonna pay us 50 Euro’s in the low season. After, in the high season he was gonna pay us 60 Euro’s. Then after we got here everything changed because he noticed the work and he couldn’t afford to pay everybody 60 Euro’s per day so he dropped it for 40. Plus tips. All the tips go into a tip jar and we split it. When we were doing really well anything over 30 the restaurant keeps. This is something I wasn’t used to either because in America your tips are your tips but its OK because, If, which didn’t happen very often, if I made 30 Euro’s per days tips, plus my 40 euro pay do you know what good money that is here? It’s very good. That’s over $100 per day. It’s a lot of hours every day but you are able to save.
My boyfriend was working here for two months and he was getting 50 Euro’s in the kitchen. I’m outside, he is inside and together we were making way over 100 Euro’s per day. You can bank a lot of money like that. We ate here. We didn’t have to buy food at home. Even our coffees we drank here. The boss is great like that. He really tries to look after the staff.
Where do you live?
I live in an apartment. It’s up on the hillside above the beach. It’s surrounded by little old houses with old people. We have a huge porch. There is a picnic table, chairs and a barbecue. It’s so beautiful. There are flowers everywhere. Its 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, air conditioning a wooden stove, everything inside is brick and wood.
How much is the rent?
The first 10 days when I came from Athens I stayed in Hotel Hell down the street. It was just this awful tiny room. For 10 days I paid 140 Euro’s.
Then I got my current place. When I first moved in we made an agreement for 300 Euro’s a month. Then Dimitri talked to the landlord and he came over with a brand new refrigerator, a brand new washer, and he dropped my rent to 200. I think maybe he took advantage of me at first because I spoke only English.
I pay 200 Euro’s a month rent. If Dimitri and I work 2 days we can pay our rent for a month.
Your landlord sounds like a good guy.
My landlord’s dad was the most famous knife maker on Crete. Right across from my house is a big museum and all the walls are covered with knives. He died of cancer when he was 52 and he left all this to his boys. My landlord is 28 years old.
How about bills?
I got my electric bill the other day for 4 months. My electric bill was 60 Euro’s. One day’s pay paid for that.
I haven’t received a water bill yet. They say the bill comes twice a year and its 20-30 Euro’s. I think you pay for what you use. My bills in Athens were ridiculous. They were 300-400 Euro’s. My friends told me, Julie, the electric and water is different here. It’s a different system. I’ve bought a truck load of wood to heat the house in the winter for 80 Euro’s.
What else do you spend?
I just buy dog food, cat food a few bits for the house like coffee, sugar and bread. I don’t need much because I eat at the restaurant every day. Other than that, we economize very well. We only have to worry about the two of us because my daughter goes back to America next week.
The only trips we take are to the mountains because I like to see snow. But that’s gas money only.
What’s your favorite island in Greece?
Tinos. Me, my mum and my daughter went there for 2 days. There’s a big church on a hill. They have a red carpet that goes all the way up. People crawl all the way up to the top when they are asking for prayers. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing to see.
Do you have any retirement plans?
That far I haven’t thought of yet. You know why? Because not even tomorrow is promised to me. So far in life I’ve lived day to day. My boyfriend has a very nice pension. He’s paid into taxes so long that he will have a big cheque coming. For me, I worked in America and I can bring my 401k over here.
Could you retire in Greece on $1000 per month?
Would you like to plug the restaurant?
Koundouros has been open 5 months in Crete. In Athens we were open for 7 years. The restaurant is all about local free range meats. Cretan traditional food. We didn’t even have fish on the menu because it’s not traditional. But we noticed we were losing tables so we added a whole baked fish. The chef is very traditional. He likes to cook food like rooster, snails, goat and intestines. This is traditional Cretan food. But we had to adapt the menu slightly for tourists. We have people come to the restaurant and ask for pizza. Why would you come to Crete to eat pizza? Some Germans came yesterday and asked if we had German food. No, if you want German food, go to Germany. If you want Cretan food, come to Koundouros.
Cost of Living in Greece
Based on Julie’s experience its seems a person could certainly retire in Greece with just a small monthly income. The Cost of living in Greece is very low if you’re not traveling around. Additionally, if you were willing to work the summer season you could probably save enough to double your income for the rest of the year.
Julie had never done an interview before and neither had BackToTravel. You always remember your first time. Take care Julie. Thanks for brightening our trip and broadening our minds. Hope to meet you again soon.