For a long time now Greece has been like a magnet for most people that have passed through this country. The diverse landscape, the beautiful colours of the light, Greek food and not to be left out the joyful company of the Greeks are but a few features which everyone would remember with delight. But spending a two-weeks holiday is only enough to get a rough image and idea of Greece and its inhabitants though a very enchanting one. To really understand the Greeks and their attitude towards life takes more than that and even after living in Greece for some years it still depends on your own openness and perception, if ever you have the luck to gain insight. One has to dive deeply into Greek culture and history without leaving out the current situation of life in Greece.
In order to approach the idiosyncrasy of a people or culture one should become conscious to the fact that our sight is constantly influenced by culture-specific attitudes regarding up-bringing, beliefs, etc. and this partial sight leads to premature conclusions and judgments. One tends to compare everything with the already known patterns and happenings are pitched on, looked at and judged without association to the whole. Therefore, you cannot just simply believe that you understand a different culture. This is only obtainable when beliefs and habits are of similar consistency or the visitor is able to overcome these subconscious influences. Different culture, different beliefs, different expectations – they all lead to misunderstandings that tend to change ordinary situations into disproportionate problems. The consciousness about our own limited sight is the beginning of understanding. Therefore, the first step towards understanding another culture has to be realized within oneself.
One may ask now what is so special about Greeks; after all they are only a people like all the others. This is true and nevertheless Greece differs. The Greek mythology with gods and heroes like Zeus, Hercules and Dionysos on the one side and the ancient history of Greece with the famous philosophers and scientists such as Socrates, Aristoteles and Pythagoras as well as the monuments of arts on the other are known worldwide and the Greek philosophical and scientific theories are the cradle of the western world – not to mention the roots of democracy that were set in Ancient Greece 2000 years ago. This is a wonderful heritage and a heavy burden, as well, as will be shown below.
The connection to the spirit of Ancient Greece was abruptly cut off by the christianisation of Europe when former believes and ways of thinking were forbidden and exterminated in order to bring forth the new values. The only direct link to ancient Greece is preserved within Greek folksongs that show the same bars and follow the tradition of transmitting values and idealistic ideas within songs. By following the course of the Greek folk song, that began in the 3rd or 4th century, you will end up at the poetry of Homer. Of course, the language has changed, but the subjects of the songs like courageousness, the participation of nature within life and the deep understanding of the soul have remained the same. And that is perhaps the reason why even nowadays Greek folk music is so popular among all generations. It is interesting though that the only reminiscence of the Greek spirit has survived in a natural way through the people and not within scientific discourses.
While the rest of Europe after medieval times regained its link to the spirit of Ancient Greece starting with the epoch of such significant importance for the development of Europe, the Renaissance, Greece missed this important step due to its being under foreign rule and also further epochs such as the Reformation and Enlightenment passed without leaving any noteworthy influence on Greece. Having not taken part in the development of Europe is of great importance and has remained a problem for Greece in finding its place in Europe. It is therefore amazing how the Greeks handled and are still dealing this competition with the rest of the world, with a self-confidence that is rooted in individuality and a critical attitude to the happenings in the world.
Being the most eastern country of the Western Europe and due to its history, Greece was and continues to be a buffer as well as a bridge between the occidental and oriental cultures. As a result of this unique position Greece had difficulties to find its identification when re-obtained its independence in the 19th century after 400 years under foreign rule. I would like to freely cite here Nikos Dimou of his book „The Misfortune Of Being Greek“: Are the Greeks the Europeans of the East or the Orientals of Europe? Whenever Greeks talk about Europe they do not include themselves, a completely incomprehensible fact for the rest of the Europeans. Part of this attitude rooted in the fact that Greece was under foreign rule as above mentioned, partly due to Greece’s particular location, as Greece was for a long time geographically cut off from the EU by Yugoslavia, and also because of the course of history where Greece often found itself neglected by precisely these Europeans (remember the fight for freedom in the 19th century and the crisis of Cyprus). Thus it becomes clear that the Greeks may be conscious of their being Europeans but tend to question it as well. Out of this feeling of negligence rises rebellion, which is a favorite pastime of the Greeks: They are very proud of having and declaring their own opinion in political matters – often by not obeying the official attitude of the EU. Therefore they are frequently a thorn in the European community’s side – and nothing pleases a Greek more than that. Being a small country without any global economic importance and nevertheless able to affront these giants if necessary – this automatically gives them a feeling of independence, something Greece from economical standpoint doesn’t have but ideologically searches for.
With this practice Greeks follow in some respects the tradition of their ancestors, who as well wouldn’t accept the given values and ways of thinking, and by challenging made way for their philosophical systems and sciences. You can still find this suspiciousness now in Greece, although it is not obvious at once. The domain where this distrust exerts its most important influence is within the relationship of citizens and government. Government is often regarded as an enemy – like an egoistic father who doesn’t care about nobody but himself. This unfortunate relationship originates – to the opinion of many Greeks – from the foreign rule, where the rulers were in fact the official enemies. It is a fact that Greeks don’t like to obey laws or rules, and it is a game for every Greek finding ways to by-pass them and they are very inventive at it. In Greece, laws are often only a piece of paper without much influence towards real life. You can experience this on your daily walk though the city: Never trust a green traffic light or a zebra crossing, you have to look out every moment – and it keeps you awake. Once a Greek philologist explained to me the difference of the attitude of German and Greeks towards their governments. The German is by nature a law-abider and he is sort of rewarded by the legislature with a relatively good-working welfare state. As the welfare state in Greece is virtually non-present, Greeks are not willing to pay for nothing. The consequence is a circle without exodus. The economic loss, tax evasion as an example, tears another hole in the already bottomless budget and automatically destroys the hope of a – if ever thought of – reconditioning of the social welfare state. But why shift the blame of a dysfunctional welfare state on the citizens, when there is no evidence that their obeying to the laws would have a positive effect on their lives? The mistrust towards the government finds its confirmation in episodes such as the replacements of public servants according to their political believes after elections, which is also based on mistrust.
Despite the twisted fates placed on them, they never lose their faith and hope, when they really belief in something they want to achieve. The path to achieve their aim is not realised by asking nicely but rather by unceasing insistence, and this is the way you normally receive whatever you want in Greece. This insistence, whenever Greeks have a strong believe in something, together with their pride towards themselves and their country, which is the most outstanding characteristic of the Greeks, and the tendency to exaggerate led to events like the famous resistance, despite the mere desperateness, by saying „No“ to the Italian invaders who wanted to cross the Greek border during the 2nd World War.
A really remarkable feature of Greece is the fact that there are as many Greeks living within Greece as there are living abroad. The mountainous form of Greece and its ending up in bays at the seaside is a possible factor of the outwards stream of the Greeks. Nearly every family has some relatives living abroad. Living and working outside their country has a long tradition in Greece. All over European and Asian scriptures you can find clues of Greeks being in other countries and involved in historical events. Greeks were known as excellent dealers and navigators who had the talent of having a good intuition for business, as well as negotiators and arbitrators – a vocation that remains alive until now. In today’s politics regarding frictions between western and eastern governments, Greece often plays an important role within negotiations and is often the host of such events. In ancient times, Greece was never a unified country – with the exception of Alexander the Great – who unified the Greek cities and created a vast empire expanding from Greece up to the Northwest India. Therefore, ages now Greece has kept a kind of an impartial status, although it is known for its penchant for oppressed peoples.
So, many of us have already had a first insight into the Greek way of life either by visiting Greece or at least by having met Greeks living abroad and each of us has weighed up for himself its positive and negative aspects according to his understanding. As positive aspects most of us consider to be the landscape, the food, the celebrations and the proverbial hospitality and helpfulness of the Greeks, whereas many visitors are offended by unpleasant troubles such as public transport strikes within holiday time, unorganized structures in the working and service area, the unreliability, e.g. the negligence of a promise due to overestimation, bureaucracy etc. These annoying factors are likely to be accepted during a holiday stay although lack of understanding is often expressed by the visitors, because their needs – a stress-less holiday – are being ignored. Often one forgets that the inhabitants of the country have their own view towards life and how to regulate it and despite their hospitality and the wish of pleasing their guests, the struggle for their rights have always been of more importance than the consideration of what economical effect the dissatisfaction of their guests would mean.
Many times within conversations with Europeans I was confronted with how pejoratively they judged these nuisances and very often – as a summit – a comparison with the Ancient Greeks would follow. This is a very fatal standpoint, for precisely the comparison with the ancient Greeks holds a vain complacency of overcoming a complex of the visitor: the fact that their culture and origins lack the prestige of that of the Greeks. The feeling of bitterness Europeans show regarding the apparently lost heritage and the lack of respect towards it even results in a feeling of undeservedness due to the inability of the Greeks to preserve and exploit the wonders that have been handed down to them – they tend to regard these treasures even as being theirs, given that their civilization is based upon Ancient Greece. Such an approach, however, immensely distorts the actual image of the contemporary Greeks and is without any relation to reality. This is the burden of their heritage and Greeks are aware of it. Actually there is nobody that mocks Greece and the Greeks more as the Greeks themselves – this is another popular pastime, but they do not like to be criticized by Non-Greeks and are not likely to criticize their country in the presence of strangers.
When I first came to Greece I was overwhelmed by the pulsing life I met there. Everything was intensive starting with the light, colours, fragrances and landscape and as if the Greek way of life was emulating this beautiful exaggeration of the nature, it also moved between extremes when it came to sentiments, interpersonal relations etc. To experience such a multitude of intensive impressions automatically has an influence on your own attitude and behaviour towards this country or even life. By immersing in the flow and rhythm of the daily life in Greece you can have your own experience and you will understand that there is one thing you will never meet in Greece: mediocrity. As Nikos Dimou states: The Greek ignores reality: He lives twice as much as his economical funds would allow him, he promises thrice as much as he can do, he knows four times more than he ever learned, he feels and sympathises five times more than he actually senses.
Soon after my arrival in Greece I was subject to the illusion that it is easy to understand Greeks because of their open-heartedness and their being filled to the brim with emotions and reactions. Only after a certain time was I able to get deeper in to the Greek way of thinking. The feeling that I was at any time welcomed was then replaced by the knowledge that Greeks would never give you the feeling that you may not be welcome, because of their traditional belief in hospitality. It depends on you, if you are able to sense the truth beyond the surface.
This hospitality towards their guests is one of the most attractive traits of the Greeks. It can lead to extreme situations such as sacrificing their beds to their guest while sleeping on the floor or strangers being invited spontaneously to a wedding party when going to a tavern simply for dinner. These offers come from the bottom of their hearts and are absolutely sincere and the invited guests to such unexpected actions feel deeply embraced. What non-Greeks often do not understand and is not shown by their hosts is that this trait has its own rules. Being invited immediately calls for reciprocation, an action that is often not easy to accomplish, because Greeks in a playful manner test your real intention and the honesty with which you intend to do something. If you truly intend to reciprocate an act of hospitality you can do it, but must show it through insistence and willingness. Otherwise, if you just try to repay a favour out of the feeling of debt, you will never achieve it – so it is up to you, if you are able to play and continue the game. Unfortunately, in the last decades the noble and unwritten law of hospitality has been tested to extremes by countless tourists who, with their often senseless behaviour and ways, have taken everything from this country without anything in return.
The behaviour of Greeks regarding inter human relationships are as intense as their emotions. Strangers are often astonished when they follow a conversation that suddenly turns into a dispute and seems to their understanding to be predestinated to lead into a brawl, and they are even more surprised when finally the parties end up in drinking and laughing together. The release of emotions is assisted by the respect and understanding that non-involved show towards the involved and by non-interfering allow the explosion of emotions; only if someone would be in danger of being harmed they would stop them. Of course, there are also serious differences and it is actually said that in Crete the custom of blood feud still exists in some excessive exceptions. But generally the differences are more of verbal nature. The philosophic tradition of Pre and Contra of the Ancient Greeks is another favourite pastime of the contemporary Greeks and is held alive in the Greek cafenion-s as well as in family meetings or get-together of friends. Unusual is the fact that as deep as their differences might be, as soon as it is necessary they become a unit. This tightrope-walking between individuality and unit is an art that is mastered by Greeks with an ease that seems almost weird.
Family bonds are essential in Greece and the interdependence within family generally lasts the whole life. Due to the difficult economic situation, the parents often help the newly married couple by providing them economic support and assisting them in family matters such as attending to the children and more. The contact to even remote relatives is cultivated intensely and together with the inquisitive interest of the Greeks in the life of their compatriots, Greece sometimes seems to be like a small village. Whenever Greeks meet someone for the first time, they try to find at least one mutual relative or friend, and it is unbelievable that most times they really end up in knowing someone familiar to both.
All the beauties of Greece cannot fool you about the fact, that the economic situation of Greece is one of the worst within Europe. Salaries are very low in regard to the costs of living. Unfortunately, the globalisation and development of the modern times has influenced Greece and its inhabitants. Due to their tendency to exaggerate everything their consumer behaviour has had catastrophic consequences, which have led them to live and became dependent upon plastic money. The mounting debts encored have to eventually be paid back and consequently are changing the Greeks into marionettes on the wheel of capitalism and suddenly Greeks are on their way to lose their especialness. A way out of this could be to face and accept this reality and utilise their innate insistence in order to turn the dependency into resistance.
Perhaps the most famous Greek of the last century is the hero of Nikos Kazanzakis‘ novel „Alexis Sorbas“. Alexis Sorbas is seen as the Greek par excellence not only by Greeks but also by the rest of the world. His attitude towards life, his wiseness, his spontaneity and ingenuity in every situation and the intensity he lived his life with shows what a Greek can be like at his best: A philosopher and connoisseur by experience and a bon vivant in ecstasy as well. He achieves this by overcoming the limitations of ordinary life. It is this dream of freedom that lasts in every Greek soul, the understanding of life and the being aware of every moment. By observing the Greeks you can find signs of Sorbas’s character in nearly everyone while the limitation of daily routine within society hinders them from climbing higher. But a look into their eyes will convince you that the love for life is present and perhaps you will recognize the roguish look on the face of the owner of the market stand who is bargaining over the price with you.
This is my understanding of the Greeks and it is first of all a personal opinion as it is based on my observation without the claim of being complete or correct. There are many more peculiarities of the Greeks that would be worth of being discussed but it would go beyond the scope of this article to mention them all. I also would like to place emphasis on the fact that I have met many Greeks that do not fit into this image. An article about understanding Greeks is not predestined to take into account the individual; it is the general impression Greeks leave on people, that is regarded and discussed in this essay. Hopefully, my approach to the Greek way of thinking is able to mark the beginning of your own way towards understanding Greeks – not by adopting it but rather by having achieved sensibility towards the complex nature of Greeks.
This article by Heike Koutsaringas (neè Göttlicher) was first published at Elinepa.org on the 7th February 2004
© Heike Göttlicher