Our next installment in a series of Q&A with American-born Greeks living in Greece. This time, we caught up with Pennsylvania native Maria Papazekou.
Meet Maria Papazekou
Greek-American Maria Papazekou moved to Greece after graduating college in 1999. The HR professional talks about living and working in today’s Greece, and why, despite all the challenges, that they stay.
Maria A. Karamitsos: Where are you from?
Maria Papazekou: I was born and raised in New Castle, Pennsylvania, which is about 1 hour north of Pittsburgh.
MAK: Where is your family from in Greece?
MP: From the mainland. My dad is from a small village outside of Karpenisi (Granitsa Evrytanias), and my mom on the border of Evrytania/Aitolokarnania, an area known as Valtos Aitoloakarnanias. My husband is also from the same area.
MAK: Talk a little about your Greek community connections in Pittsburgh (prior to leaving).
MP: I grew up in a small town with few Greeks but with a huge extended family. Basically, if you were Greek and living in New Castle, we were related. I was involved, as most Greek kids are, with anything that revolved around the church (GOYA, Greek school, choir member, etc) and during that time we also had a very active chapter of the Velouchi organization, where I participated and mainly with the dance group.
MAK: Did you attend university in the US? Tell us about you and your career.
MP: I attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. I majored in Political Science and Spanish/Italian – I studied abroad for a year in Spain and Italy as well to learn the languages. When I first came to Greece I worked for a short time at the US Embassy, starting as an intern. After that my career has been in the HR and staffing industry.
MAK: Do you still have family in the States? Do you visit often?
MP: My parents still live in New Castle, as well as my brother, and I also have a brother who lives in Lancaster, PA with his family. A lot of my relatives are still in the area and we try to go back as often as possible (usually every 2-3 years).
MAK: You moved to Greece in 1999. What precipitated the move?
MP: We used to visit Greece every single summer from when I was a child. I remember at a very young age feeling like this was where I belonged and that one day I would move here. It wasn’t a single certain instance that prompted me, but it was like it was always part of my life plan to one day be living in Greece. Once I finished college, I booked my ticket. I also got married here soon after.
MAK: How do you like living in Greece? Was it easy to adjust?
MP: It was very easy to adjust as I was quite young when I came, so you see things a bit differently the younger you are. It helped that I had lots of family and friends here, and I knew the language. I also got a job right away. The most difficult adjustment came after having my kids and not having my immediate family around. I have found that living in Greece, you have a love/hate relationship. Just like the Greek temperamento, there is no middle ground! The weather, the sea, the landscape, the people, the food, the lifestyle in general, makes you happy with the simplest of things. The mantra “Life is good” generally holds true here. However, there are other fundamental problems which make it hard to enjoy those things. For instance, the schools and the education system is archaic. The constant changes of government provide no stability and there are no incentives for private business or foreign investment which Greece so desperately needs in order to create jobs. The economic crisis, the huge unemployment rate, the summer of 2015 with cash controls, near bankruptcy, Grexit, etc. and now the huge problem we have with the influx of refugees and illegal immigrants, are issues which make it hard to find that Greece is currently the ideal place to be when you are constantly surrounded by the doom and gloom. Luckily, we have the weekends where we remember again the positives!
MAK: Give a little perspective on being a Greek-American living in Greece.
MP: I find that Greeks are curious to know my background and respect my viewpoints, having lived in the US. My education and the fact that my mother tongue is English, also were an asset in the job market and opened opportunities to me. I haven’t had any negativity aimed towards me for being American and actually, most people ask me, when they learn that I am from the US, “Why are you here????”.
MAK: Do you work outside the home? If yes, what kind of work do you do? What type of work does your husband do?
MP: I work full-time as an HR Consultant at Randstad, a multinational recruitment and staffing company. You can imagine the challenge in today’s Greece of finding jobs to fill, and people to fill those jobs! My husband is in the advertising industry. We both work many hours outside of the home, which is difficult without having family to help (the kids are home from school at about 2:00 pm everyday) but we make it work.
MAK: Tell us about your family, and a bit about raising kids is today’s Greece.
MP: I have 3 children – Two boys, who are 14 and 11, and I have a 3-1/2 year old daughter. I find that Greece is very “kids-oriented” and honestly haven’t really encountered any major problems. My kids go to the Greek public schools, where luckily enough, up until now have for the most part had really great teachers. They have classmates from all over the world, and they all get along. I don’t see any discrimination or bullying taking place as I hear is such a big problem in the US. One of the byproducts of the crisis is that you don’t see kids getting picked on for not wearing the “in” brands or the latest sneakers etc., because, most families are in the same situation, and some much worse. In the neighborhood where we live in the northern suburbs of Athens, it is kind of a village feeling where everybody knows each other and kind of looks out for each other’s kids. Kids have quite a bit of freedom here, for instance, they go to their after school lessons and activities on their own, many times before we even get home from work, so they learn responsibility from a young age. With everything that the kids are exposed to going on around them, it has made them sensitive about their fellow human being. My 11 year-old raided our pantry yesterday as he and his classmates decided to make donations for the refugees, aside from the food drive the school had organized. They are not too negatively impacted by the economic crisis on an everyday level (they have everything they need and much of what they want) however, they have learned that wants and needs are two different things and in turn are a bit less demanding in terms of asking for unnecessary things.
MAK: With all the challenges, why do you stay in Greece?
MP: I stay because this is my home. I have my life here, my children are well adjusted and happy here. We are still employed and trying to make the best of it. That being said, it’s comforting to know that should we decide to go back, that door is always there.
MAK: Why is it important for Greeks to stay, and work through it?
MP: The reputation of Greeks being lazy, not work-oriented etc. is not at all the Greeks that I have worked with all these years. Greeks love their land, their country, their people, but unfortunately many only realize it after they have left it. The education level of Greeks and the professionals coming out of Greek universities rival those of many of the top colleges and universities abroad. The so-called brain drain is detrimental to the country on so many levels, but unfortunately if there are no opportunities to be gainfully employed, because no new jobs are being created, it goes without saying that people will leave.
MAK: What should people outside of Greece know?
MP: That Greece is a beautiful country with wonderful people that will persevere no matter what.
MAK: What can Greeks outside of Greece do to promote Greece, and to help?
MP: Travel to Greece, promote Greece as a travel destination, keep Greek traditions alive in your homes and families. On a more tangible level, right now the most help that is needed is with organizations for children (like Smile of a Child) or refugee crisis centers. Every little bit helps!