Published in 1994 and 1997

Greece --- from a visitor's view point!

by Andrew Leech (

Health warning: Reading the following text may be injurious to those without a sense of humour. It must be looked upon in the same spirit as one would read that much-loved satire on the British character by George Mikes. It is not an attack on Hellas , or even ouzo.

The first thing a non-Greek -- or even a native who has been away from Greece for a long time -- will notice , is that everybody shouts. Of course, Greeks will never admit it; they just think they talk forcefully! On the one hand it is possible that the whole race suffers from a congenital hearing defect (which also explains why nobody takes the

slightest notice of what the other person says -- just watch children and mothers in a super-market, or politicians on TV, for proof of this); and, on the other, it is possible that it is a throwback to ancient times, when shepherds on the mountains shouted to each other from distant peaks (the Swiss and Austrians had the same problem, but they overcame it with yodelling)!

It could also be due to the capricious, primitive telephone system in Greece ( known as OTE ) which may need extra lung power to energise its lines to a functional level! However, all this is conjecture and we are still left with the fact that everybody SHOUTS, which is a bit unnerving for the non-Greek till his ears have lost their native sensitivity.

Another curious phenomenon (for those who can understand the Greek word apagorevetai (forbidden) is the plethora of signs stating that something is forbidden: for example, camping on non- prescribed sights, littering the beaches, throwing rubbish into the street, putting posters on walls, smoking in public offices, parking one’s car etc.; all of which are routinely ignored, with the exception of smoking and spitting on trains which is scrupulously adhered to.

Another point the foreigner will notice is that people walk in the roads and cars are parked on pavements, but perhaps this is due to there being a smoother surface on the road and less likelihood of tripping on the uneven paving stones!

In driving, the foreigner will note how friendly the people are. After narrowly missing a pedestrian, another car, or bike Greeks will happily wave at each other with the palm and five fingers fully extended. However, that same foreigner cannot understand why the other party gets upset when he, too, tries to be friendly and uses that same greeting with his acquaintances !!

If the foreigner with a car has the good fortune to meet a lorry driver who speaks his own language -- or, conversely, if the foreigner has had a good grounding in Ancient Greek during his schooldays -- he will be amazed at the depths of philosophy expressed by these solemn knights of the road. When protesting that the lorry’s sudden right hand turn - without any indication whatsoever - had caused the visitor’s car to end up stuck in a tomato field, into which he had turned to avert an accident, he will very rightly and correctly be asked how on earth he would have been able to notice a tiny yellow light blinking, when he was patently unable to see a whole, articulated, 16 wheel truck turning!

The said foreigner will also be surprised to se that motorcyclists very rarely wear their helmets, but instead carry them on their arm while driving. There is good reason for this, as you will see. Athens is lucky in having many small open-air markets and the traders move from one area to the other throughout the week. Since most mothers and housewives pride themselves on having totally fresh vegetables available in their kitchens the male members of the family are under constant exhortation to find fresh produce daily and, due to their unwillingness to carry voluminous shopping bags have resorted to using their crash helmets as the situation demands. And, so as not to mix hair-laquer, cream or dandruff with the fresh vegetables (and spoil the taste) make a moral point of carrying, and never wearing, their helmets.

It is also worth mentioning at this juncture that Greek traffic lights have a particular code of their own. Whereas red means stop, yellow means speed up and get across quick — even if you are 100m from the traffic light at the time. And it must also be noted that traffic lights do not apply to two-wheeled vehicles which, being smaller and more vulnerable than lorries and cars (in the event of a crash) are not considered worthy of legislating against as they don’t present much of an impediment — the noble four-wheeler merely rides roughshod over them.

Furthermore, the foreigner will wonder why the locals — both adults and children — dash across roads without looking either right or left. It seems that the concept of kerb drill is completely unknown. Again, there is a cultural and understandable reason for this. Since,as the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, tells us: “the best laid schemes of mice and men go aft astray,” so the logical Greek doesn’t bother to waste time making plans, but simply acts on impulse which — in Greece — seems to have a fairly high rate of success coupled with a minimum outlay of effort; a strategy that was central to survival during both the Turkish and German Occupations, when the left hand didn’t know what the right one was doing!

While searching aimlessly for a litter bin the foreigner may notice the locals throwing their litter -- cigarette packs, paper handkerchiefs etc. -- into the gutter, or out of car windows. On timorously asking if there is a litter bin in the area, he will find his interlocutor gesticulating vigorously in the direction of that same gutter. If said foreigner has had the good luck to meet one of the 93.789% of Greeks who speak excellent English, French, German, Russian, Swedish, Arabic, Serbo-Croat, Turkish or Japanese he wiil be given a sharp lesson on unemployment and how important it is to provide work for the streetcleaners who would otherwise starve. He will also have it tactfully pointed out that the rubbish should always be thrown in the gutter -- never on the pavement -- so as to facilitate the cleaner’s job. Sobered by his chastisement, the foreigner, with due ceremony, then throws his litter into the gutter, content in the thought and knowledge that he is supporting both the employment programme and the National Economy.

The foreigner will also be surprised at the Greek consumption of cigarettes -- probably the highest in Europe -- and wonder at the patriotism of the Hellenes who do their utmost to kill themselves off before becoming eligible for their pensions and, thus, save the overburdened Health and Welfare Service (IKA) the expense of giving back to them all they have lovingly contributed to it during their working lives. Now, why can’t other Europeans be similarly patriotic?

The tourist will, similarly, be intrigued by the large glasses of aniseed flavoured milky water, known as ouzo, served in cafes and restaurants everywhere. It will not be for some evenings and several imbibings that he will understand what ouzo has offered to Greek Culture and how it has become the mainstay of THE GREEK WAY OF LIFE -- and, even more important: the economy.

Ouzo must be drunk in company, therefore conversation is stimulated and consumption increased. Ouzo cannot be drunk without the addition of tasty morsels of food, known as mezes, therefore gastronomic experimentation and exploration take place and food consumption is increased. In fact, the more one drinks, the hungrier one becomes, so the consumption cycle is accelerated --- which proves the logic of capitalistic ideology. Ouzo, also, has the ability to paint the world in glowing pink so, whatever problems you may have, it eases them. This particular benefit is most evident in Summer, when all Greek psychiatric workers are on holiday, and ouzo is commonly understood to stand in for them -- in locus parentis so to speak -- with their patients. It also has the quality of anaesthetizing the presentation of the bill, so any minor overcharging is overlooked and the local police not wakened from their slumber investigate the ugly mess of a cafe fracas!

Ouzo, furthermore, increases one’s boldness and libido into both making and extracting outrageous promises -- especially to members of the opposite sex -- but, wisely, decreases one’s sexual capacity for implementing them.

In conclusion, ouzo leaves you with an indescribable floating feeling the following morning; the ability to become blind drunk once again - merely by drinking a glass of water ( which is an economic marvel in itself ); a king-sized headache which benefits those pharmacies selling cures for a hangover; and a strong feeling of general amnesia which enables you to forget whatever you’d rather not remember from the night before!

What will truly delight the foreigner is the titillating excursion into uknown gastronomy after reading the English translations of some taverna menus. For example, working out the actual ingredients of (seen on Zakinthos, Aug. 93): stewed kids, impaled pig, cool fish, lamp fricassee, pissoles and — piece de resistance — fried Greeks meatballs, where the foreigner may reflect for a while on the erstwhile character of the donor! I believe that the owner of that taverna was not among the many polyglot Greeks I mentioned earlier, and the young English girl waiting on tables was, obviously, quite unable to decipher the Greek script they referred to!

It has been said that Greeks are rude. This is a totally false impression, which has been spread about by those who did not share the Greek concept of courtesy and etiquette. When, for example, a wrong telephone number is dialled and the recipient -- after answering and politely explaining that he is not the party to which the other wishes to speak -- has the other phone slammed down on him, without any gesture or intonation of apology, this should not be classed as rudeness. It is the gentle, modest, retiring nature of the Greek who does not want to intrude on your time, or — in the case of 3 am wrong numbers — on your slumber, longer than necessary.

Similarly, when passing through doors, the Northern European may accidentally revert to his traditional, cultural, ill-advised habit of holding the door open for the next person. If the follower is male he will probably get a nod, grunt or some other indication that the courtesy was received and appreciated. If, on the other hand, the follower is female — and somewhat into middle-age — the foreigner may be startled to see the woman draw herself up to her full height, make motions of balancing an imaginary lorgnette on the end of her nose and, drawing in her non-existent skirts and train, sweep through the portal without even a word or glance being thrown in the door-opener’s direction! This is, however, a trait that is rapidly disappearing these days, like the traditional British breakfast of eggs and bacon, and moreover is only seen between people who haven’t been introduced. After introduction all Greek women are the spirit and embodiment of courtesy and politeness!

Other women (those opening their own doors ), when allowing the door to swing back violently and bruise the unwary nose of the follower, are not guilty of rudeness either. They, in fact, have noticed the follower -- and been attracted by his appearance -- and wish to present some small token of their affection ( like the scars or love bites inflicted by some other species, on each other, as signs of affection and approval ). So, in Greek culture, the red, bruised nose of the follower is publicly exhibited as a proud mark of a certain lady’s esteem and favour!

It has been said that the Greeks are snobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the owner of a Rolex, or Philip Patek, watch continually dangles it in front of your nose --- so you cannot possibly mistake any detail -- this is not snobbism. It is an unequivocal statement that time is precious and shouldn’t be wasted; and that no mistake has been made as to the value of that time as it is documented by one of the finest Swiss chronometers!

Similarly, those who try to make you aware of the Boss, Lacoste Nike, Reebok or Timberland labels on their garments, have merely properly internalized the inner meaning of the proverb “Clothes make the Man“; and, finally feeling fully integrated for the first time, and totally reborn, are displaying their joy and total dedication and commitment to humanity. They are also, in their modest way, giving us an example of an ideal to aspire to! The same logic may even, today, be applied to that new fad: the mobile phone: that ubiquitous mass of digitised circuitry that so often appears between the mouth and the meze in even the best restaurants!

Greek Komboloi (or worry beads) are another Hellenic invention that has greatly contributed to the ease of modern living. The visitor may have wondered as to the use of these attractive little ornaments, whose constant click-clacking in public offices, restaurants and cafes adds a pleasant backdrop to the whirr of ciccadas, in summer, and prevents the public employee from accidentaly falling asleep -- which is precisely why they were developed in the first place! Consider how many working hours are lost in other cultures, or railway stations overshot, simply because the working man did not have a personal komboloi to keep him awake. For this one, simple invention alone Greece should be awarded the International Accolade for Industrial Efficiency.

When you consider, also, how you are freed from the need to write a shopping list, or carry a calculator to work out your small change, you will wonder at the beads’ versatility. When you add to that the infinite possibilities as an effective fly swatter ( no fly ever survives a thump with a worry bead ), a substitute for smoking and a definite leisure improvement on the lonely British habit of standing with one’s hands in one’s pockets, playing pocket-billiards (a kind of primitive Solitaire, but without cards), you will wonder why all cultures have not adopted them — apart from the Turks (who used them to list the harem women) and Catholic nuns, who pretend they are for religious purposes!

Greece will always delight and baffle the foreigner who will have to diligently exercise his mind to find an answer to the strange, incomprehensible phenomena surrounding him. However, it is generally agreed that the main delight of a holiday is that it should be a new, surprising experience and --- however many times a foreigner returns to Greece --- he will, like the Greeks, never run short of new, surprising, incomprehensible, baffling -- AND TOTALLY GREEK -- experiences!

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