While waiting for a 4:30 AM ferry in Irakleio, Crete, I found myself in the company of some of those American tourists. You surely know what I’m talking about; neon U of Whatever t-shirts, flip flops, loud embarrassing conversations, the whole shebang. The ferry was late, it was cold out in the early morning seaside air, and I heard one of the Americans say, “Ugh, this would like never happen in America.”
Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or an intercultural disaster waiting to happen, adjusting to life in Greece can be very difficult. As a shameless hellenophile, even I have had many a moment of frustration in attempting to adjust to Greek culture. It’s not particularly strange or challenging–but just like any foreign culture, it has its own host of differences, some bigger than others. This is important because Greece sees so many tourists, and could really use to see more these days from an economic standpoint. That said, if you’re one of those visitors (you lucky duck!), it’s important to do your homework and know what you’re in for, so that you can make the most of your trip.
So, in the interest of ensuring that your Greek adventure will be as wonderfully life-changing as mine, I offer the following “Eleven Commandments for Traveling in Greece.” They’re specifically geared towards Americans, but applicable across the board. Why eleven? Because ten is boring. And because I wrote ten for a speech I gave this week, after which I thought of one more. Hurray!
Commandment #11: Thou shalt not travel with a rolly-bag. I know, I know. It’s so convenient! It works as a carry-on! But it’s also positively cacophonous on cobblestones and painfully awkward on narrow sidewalks. Trust me, when you get off the bus at 1 AM, you don’t want to be that guy or girl with the rolling suitcase going clackclackclack all down the cobblestone main street of whatever village you wind up in. There’s also the fact that many Greek cities are older than old, and people in the Older than Old years liked to build very narrow sidewalks. I can’t be the only one who feels like a Tool with a capital T when I’m dragging my suitcase down the sidewalk and, in the interest of avoiding a stray dog/spilled tzatziki/unidentifiable city ooze, I roll the bag off the curb, it spins, it goes off balance, my arm gets yanked, the bag falls over, the bag bursts into flames, the world ends, you know the story. The next time I come to Greece, it will be with a big backpacking pack instead, and I highly suggest you do the same.
Commandment #10: Thou shalt know thy history. In her introduction to Roumeli, a travelogue of northern Greece written by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Patricia Storace writes, “One of the characteristic gifts the Hellenic world bestows is a sense of an unobstructed passage through time… as if one could dive through time like water.” Because of this phenomenon, history inevitably finds its way into Greek popular culture. For example, some of you may have heard of the institution of rebetiko, which represents not only a genre of Greek music but an entire subculture in and of itself. The lyrics are bawdy, the crowd questionable, the hour very, very late and the air filled with smoke. But if you listen to the lyrics, they often make mention of modern Greek history. For example, several of the rebetiko songs I have heard mention Eleftherios Venizelos, Greece’s famous prime minister who was responsible for much of the country’s territorial borders and was instrumental in resolving conflict with Turkey.
Commandment #9: Thou shalt get off the beaten path. Despite blatant tourism, it’s easy to find an authentic experience. Opt for tavernas off the main tourist drag, ask for recommendations from locals, and go exploring on your own! I have a trick I use when traveling. In Greece, you will often see taverna owners standing outside their restaurant saying things like, “You want fish tonight? I have very nice fish, just for you!” Some of these restaurants are actually quite good, and packed with locals. Others? Not so much. My test for distinguishing between the two is the following: when greeting the taverna owner, do so in Greek. Though I know some of you may only visit Greece for a short time, I also know you can all manage a “Kalispera!”, which means “Good evening.” If the owner responds in Greek, you are probably on the right track (even if you have no idea what he just said!). The reason I do this is that a taverna owner who responds to you in Greek is more likely to be in the mindset to share his culture, not just get your business.
Commandment #8: Thou shalt be flexible. This is a big one, especially for us Yanks. We Americans excel at planning. However, in my experience, Greece takes whatever expectations you had, tosses them completely aside, and then delights you even more with something totally unexpected. And this is a fabulous thing! For example, while on a trip to the island of Lesvos, I was devastated to find that the off-season bus schedule was such that I could only visit two other towns, neither of which I had initially planned to visit. However, it was in one of these towns that I was invited to have a cup of coffee with three Greek women who didn’t speak a word of English. I spent the next hour using my limited Greek, gestures, and a few photos of Yellowstone National Park I had in my wallet to tell them about my home, and to hear about theirs. This would have never happened if my initial plans hadn’t been ruined, and if I hadn’t been open to alternatives.
Commandment #7: Thou shalt self-indulge. Ohhh, yes. Look, back home, you may be very sensible people who count calories and get eight hours of sleep every gosh-darn night. That’s great. But you’re in Greece! You are now surrounded by such delights as moussaka, ouzo, and ridiculously late nights. So go for it! For example, you must all try a sweet pastry called bougatsa, which is especially famous in my home city of Thessaloniki. It’s a cream-filled phyllo pie, and guess what? You can eat it for breakfast! That’s right—you’re going to Greece, a land where dessert and breakfast can be one and the same. Live the dream!
Commandment #6: Thou shalt try to speak at least a little Greek. We all know this isn’t necessary, as English is spoken all over the world. But this isn’t about necessity, or even communication. It’s about connection. Even a few words of Greek can be all you need to really connect with a local. If you don’t speak any Greek at all, here are a few phrases that go beyond “Where is the restroom” necessity. One of my favorites is siga-siga. It’s a phrase you will hear often, and translates to “slowly, slowly.” I love this phrase because it is used to describe not only physical movement, but also an entire lifestyle. Should one spend one’s days running from one meeting to the next, without time to grab lunch? No! Far better to live siga-siga. (Greeks are hard workers, but their conceptions of time are very different from ours, and I must say I prefer theirs.) Another great phrase in Greek is ola kala! This phrase means “Everything’s good!” Again, this phrase is tied to a Greek lifestyle. Try busting out an “Ola kala!” at a great meal with Greek locals, to express your joy with the whole experience.
Commandment #5: Thou shalt do thy reading. There are many, many wonderful books about Greece that can really enrich your experience. One of my favorites is by Patrick Leigh Fermor and is called Roumeli. It tells several stories about his time traveling around mainland Greece, from the clifftop monasteries of Meteora to the site of Lord Byron’s death, west of Athens. Another favorite is by Gerald Durrell, who spent much of his childhood on the island of Corfu. His book My Family and Other Animals is a laugh-out-loud funny account of his early exploits in naturalism, catching frogs and other creatures in Corfu as a kid. Reading Greek authors in translation is also a great way to amplify your Greek experience. I’m a bit biased, as my undergraduate thesis was on Nikos Kazantzakis, but you must all read Zorba the Greek if you haven’t already.
Commandment #4: Thou shalt wait until at least nine PM to have dinner. I know. I’ve just rocked your world. Revolution! Blasphemy! But here in Greece, you might have a cup of coffee when Americans usually have dinner. So, if you want to see local life at its finest, go to a taverna at nine or ten PM. Eight thirty is permissible, but if you go at seven, you’ll be dining with the tourists!
Commandment #3: Thou shalt visit a village. It can be tricky to get there if you don’t have a car, but if at all possible, go visit a village for an afternoon (bonus points for villages in the mountains and/or in Crete). Village life is still fiercely alive in Greece. It’s a great way to see traditions at play, especially in the spring and summer. If you go stand outside a village church on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon this time of year, you will surely see a Greek wedding or baptism–or, in the case of a story I heard recently, both simultaneously!
Commandment #2: Thou shalt practice patience. American culture in particular is desperately tied to our strict notions of time. The phrase “be patient” has such a negative connotation. But actually, the opportunity to practice patience is a wonderful thing. And Greece is a wonderful teacher for this experiment. Simply put, things here usually run more slowly than they do in America. People are often late, meetings do not start on time, meals begin later and take longer, and travel connections can be difficult because each leg of the journey won’t always fit into its promised time slot. Amazingly, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Of course, for whirlwind travelers, this can definitely be a problem–make sure you don’t have any tight connections, stay flexible in your anticipated schedule, and avoid traveling on all holidays. But, on a day-to-day basis, this relaxed pace just means you have more time to enjoy doing something else. Why get your coffee in a to-go cup when you could sit with your friends and enjoy it? Why complain about the tardiness of your colleague when you can sit in the sun while waiting? The sooner you embrace this, the happier you will be in Greece.
And finally, Commandment #1: Thou shalt commit to togetherness. This is perhaps the area in which I have undergone the most personal growth since arriving in Greece. Though I love people and can be quite social, I’m an introvert at heart, and found myself spending too much time alone before I came to Greece. This has its merits, too, but since coming to Greece I have rediscovered the joy that is other people. Greek culture is very much about togetherness. When eating, everyone shares multiple dishes. When relaxing, this time is largely spent with friends and family. Of course, I have always loved my friends and family, but now I see them in a whole new way. Once I shrugged off my perceived “need” for so much alone time, I found myself gaining so much from spending most of my time with my new friends, who are my Greek family. This is one of the greatest gifts Greece has given me.
And with that, παιδιά (children), I wish you the very best of luck in your Greek journey. Happy travels, or as we say in Greek, καλό ταξίδι!
Στην υγειά σας,