Expat culture shock in Greece
The benefits of being spat on by an old Greek woman.
I was ‘fresh off the boat’ – well, plane actually – in September 2008. My first year in Greece was spent in a remote mainland village, teaching English to bolshy teenagers (just because you’re in Greece, the wrath of the teenager doesn’t dissipate).
But I have to say, there was one thing I did notice: they were a lot more respectful of the elderly. It was also quite normal for them to openly discuss religion: “Miss, what religion are you?” I can honestly say a 16 year old in the UK would never ask such a thing.
And then I moved to Athens. I fully intended to stay in Greece just one year, get some teaching experience under my belt, then go off to experience other cultures further afield. But Greece had woven her magic spell. I couldn’t get enough of her! And who’d have thought that a country merely three hours by plane away from my own was so culturally different?
It wasn’t just the weather – but weather does affect a culture, you know. As opposed to the Northern European drink-to-get-drunk pub culture, Southern Europe has a “coffee culture”. Greeks can nurse one coffee for three hours or more, and they’re not forced to buy another one or move on. You’ll still see old men in Kafenios, moaning about politics, moaning about their wives, their sisters, and then stopping to stare at you as you walk past. But you know what? It’s not creepy here. I once had an old man stop his car and call me over, “Kyria, poli oreia” (Lady, you are beautiful). I thanked him, and then there was a bit of a to-do about who should be thanking who, “Oxi, ego efharisto!” (No, I thank you!), and we both went on our ways with big smiles.
Now then, in the US or UK, so uptight is society that we’d probably be marching this amiable old man down to the local courthouse on a harassment charge by now. But note the difference. No, “Oi! You’re hot luv!” being yelled at you. Yes, the Greeks sure know how to pay a compliment.
But then again, beware of the old Greek grannies. If they’re not hitting you over the head to get into your taxi (yes, it really did happen – with an umbrella), they’re spitting at you in supermarkets!
The spitting is actually a compliment though. If you do a nice thing for someone (I had helped this old lady to pack her shopping into bags), the really traditional ones will spit – “Ftou, ftou ftou” – in your direction. It’s supposed to ward off the evil eye. Because you’re deemed to be a beauty, inside and out, jealousy will come to get you. Spitting at you is like a double negative, it wards it off. So, if a Greek spits at you, be pleasantly surprised and take it with a pinch of salt.
Back to the classroom: if teaching a bunch of kids how to count, do NOT show the number five with your palm splayed. This is akin to raising the middle finger. In fact, it’s worse. In essence, you’re telling someone that you want to rub a not very nice substance into their face (I don’t need to expand, you get the picture).
And lastly, don’t assume all Greeks are gay because they hug and kiss a lot. This is a very tactile culture. And did you know there is no Greek word for “privacy”? The closest is “lonely”. Hence, it’s a very hands-on culture – quite literally. Men (and women) have no qualms about hugging and backslapping, then kissing each other hello and goodbye. Young teen girls may walk down the street holding hands, or sit at the coffeehouse stroking each other’s hair. It’s just the way it is.
Personally, I love it now. It’s grown on me. But the concept of personal space (or lack of!) still takes a bit of getting used to.