Moving to the Stone House on the Hill
Living the Expat Life on Greece’s Peloponnese
Jackie Humphries Smith shares a rare retirement story of how she and her husband, Joel, moved from Seattle, Washington to the Greek Peloponnese to grow olives. Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are copyright to the author.
The men seated outside the Kafenio near the harbor sipped those infamously strong Greek coffees, passing time together in this small fishing village as they’d likely done for years. The click clack of their komboloi, worry beads, beat a rhythm as we walked past on a spring morning.
Lunching nearby, the café’s atmosphere was enlivened by the laughter and conversation of cappuccino-sipping English-speaking customers; obviously residents given the topics we overheard.
We’d happened upon this village six years ago in the heart of Kalamata olive country while on a multi-day road trip through the Greek Peloponnese – that land mass to the southwest of Athens that looks like a misshapen hand reaching into the Mediterranean Sea.
My husband, Joel, was ready for a break from the tiny rental car he was navigating over the narrow, winding ‘highway’. Our decision to stop, purely random. Had someone told us then that we’d live there one day, we’d have laughed.
We lingered over tuna sandwiches, watching everyday activities in the village and its harbor. As we left, Joel off-handedly remarked, ‘If we ever got serious about moving to Greece, this place might be a possibility.’
We’d traveled to other European countries, but Greece was the one that kept bringing us back. Our focus that trip was The Mani, as this vast, arid, wind-swept area of the Peloponnese is known. It is a geographical and cultural region in southern Greece that is home to the Maniots, who claim descendancy from the ancient Dorians and Spartans. One visit wasn’t enough for us; we returned that fall and the following spring.
In December 2014 we purchased a home and its 17-tree olive grove on a hillside overlooking that village where we’d lingered over lunch, Agios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas).
Our tourist visa’s 90-day stays soon felt too short, prompting us – at ages 64 and 68 – to seek Greek residency permits. Once those wallet-sized cards were in hand, we sold our home of 30 years in the Seattle, Washington suburbs and in October 2017 became full-time expats.
Growing Olives Instead of Growing Old
The reaction by many close family and friends was disbelief – from a few, it was outright disapproval. After all, they reasoned, we were retired white-collar professionals, living a comfortable life in one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States. Why would we want more?
What we wanted was less: traffic and taxes, population and politics. We wanted to live differently by focusing on growing olives instead of on growing old.
That’s not to say we didn’t consider our ages and health. We also pondered our ability to adapt to a new culture and village life in a sparsely populated agricultural area. Our bottom line: we weren’t getting any younger, it was time to give it a try!
Traffic slowdowns these days are caused by sheep or goat herds, maybe a cow crossing the road. Population swells occur from May to September when European tourists flock to the area’s villages and beaches, raising numbers from a few hundred year-round residents to a few thousand individuals.
Our cost-of-living has dropped dramatically. A multi-course dinner at a village taverna with a miso kilo (half liter) of wine averages 20 Euros (US$22) or less for the two of us. A cappuccino served in a cup with cookie on the saucer is 3 Euros. Annual Greek health insurance premiums for the two of us cost 300 Euros (US$334). Our property taxes dropped from $9,000 a year in the U.S. to less than US$400 here. We do pay more for gasoline, roughly 1.60 Euros (US$1.81) per liter or US$8 a gallon.
The autopilot of our retired life’s routines has been shut off. Adapting to a new culture and lifestyle has required stretching our brains and changing our behaviors. English is generally spoken. When it isn’t, Google Translate or pantomime get us over any communication hurdle. ‘Speaking Greek’ means uttering a word or phrase, maybe one day, a full sentence. The Metric system is used for temperatures and measurements. Our currency is the Euro.
We are more self-reliant here than in the U.S. There’s no curb-side service for garbage removal – we take ours to community bins in the village. We fill our bottles with potable water from faucets in the villages. We shop at grocery stores in the area yet buy fruit and vegetables from vendors who travel between villages selling from the back of their trucks. Letters and parcels (including Amazon orders) are delivered once a week to a café in the village. There they remain until we pick them up.
The Stone House on the Hill
The road on which we live has no name; therefore, we have no street address. Directions are simple, “look for the house with the red gate on the road to Platsa (the village just above us).”
From our three-bedroom, two-bath home – The Stone House on the Hill as it’s called — our view stretches 180-degrees from the Taygetos Mountains over a valley carpeted with olive groves and across the Messinian Bay. Legend has it that the islet in the harbor below us is Helen of Troy’s birthplace. On the bluff overlooking the harbor stands a pyrgos (tower), dating back to 1795, once used for defense. Only a few hundred of these Mani icons remain. Some have been converted to houses or tourist accommodations, others are deteriorating. They are vivid reminders of a time when pirates plied the sea, invaders roamed the land and you were likely involved in a feud with your neighbor.
Our modern appliances — a stove, microwave, refrigerator, and washing machine — contrast with towel drying dishes and hanging clothes on the line to dry. We don’t have a television, but the internet provides world news and entertainment. We frequently socialize with friends and are finally reading all those books we never had time for before.
Faith, Festivals and Fun
With 90 percent of the population being Greek Orthodox, the Church plays a large role in village life. Pascha (Easter) outranks Christmas and our villages swell with Greeks returning to their roots to participate in activities during Megali Evdomada, Holy Week, preceding Pascha. January’s Blessing of the Water draws dozens of villagers to the harbor. We have two Independence Days, one in the spring and one in the fall, with parades and performances for both.
In nearby Stoupa village, a September celebration honors author Nikos Kazantzakis, who lived there in the 1920’s, unsuccessfully running a lignite (soft low-grade coal) mine with George Zorbas. That experience gave rise to his book, Zorba the Greek. In nearby Kardamyli village, a modern-day jazz festival each May draws hundreds of jazz fans from throughout Europe.
Outdoor activities range from hiking and biking, to kayaking and swimming. We often take day trips to explore villages – so many we will never get to them all. There is nothing better than walking between them on an ancient kalderimi, the original stone roads built for donkey carts. In some areas asphalt roads didn’t replace kalderimis until the 1960’s.
Season of the Olive
The seasons of our life are now defined by olives. We, like others in the area, grow Koroneiki olives, small fruits with a high ratio of skin to flesh, perfect for making emerald green olive oil. The larger, Kalamata olive is also grown here and called ‘the salad olive’. Trees bloom in the spring. By late May olives are forming. Harvest begins around the Feast Day of Agios Dimitrios (Saint Dimitri), October 26th and continues through January.
Harvest, done by hand, is still a mom-and-pop operation. Olives are beaten from branches and gathered from nets on the ground. Too much for the two of us, we enlist paid and volunteer help. Then we watch our harvest transformed into oil at the local press.
Now, approaching our fifth harvest, we’ll admit it is some of the hardest work we’ve ever done. It is also the most rewarding. We really are focused on growing olives, instead of on growing old.
Follow Up FactsGreece: is a Schengen country allowing tourist stays of up to 90 days every six months. Penalties for over-stays can be severe. Info: www.schengenvisainfo.com Getting There: Athens International Airport Eleftherios Venizelos is the country’s gateway airport. Several European airlines also fly into the airport at Kalamata, the capital of Messinias Mani, from early April until late October. Driving from Athens to The Mani is 3.5 to 4 hours on a modern four-lane, divided toll road. From Kalamata to our villages, the ‘highway’ is two-lane, drive time an hour. Living in Greece: For information on the process of obtaining a residency permit, contact the nearest Greek Consulate. The application process for a Financially Independent Residency Permit is lengthy and costly. It begins with a face-to-face interview at the Consulate. They will advise on the documentation dealing with health, wealth and other topics that you will need to present during the interview and again later to the Greek Immigration authorities. Recommended Reading: Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958) by English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and News from the Village: Aegean Friends (2010) by American poet David Mason. Both lived in The Mani. Other recommended Moving Abroad feature articles in our Travel Article Library: “Tips for Moving Abroad to southern Spain”, and “Living Abroad in Costa Rica.”
Formerly a regular contributor to The Seattle Times, Jackie Humphries Smith is a freelance travel writer who tells tales of world travels and life as an expat in Greece on her TravelnWrite, www.travelnwrite.com blog and TravelnWrite Facebook page. She is writing a book about expat life in Greece. Jackie “The Scribe” shares the expat adventure of moving to Greece with “The Scout” her husband Joel, who scouts out travel deals and destinations.