Are Greeks nice?

May 19, 2011 § 6 Comments

Yes, the Greeks are marvelously nice!

I think.

Witness our Greek friends: lending things, alerting me to cultural events, offering to translate or accompany, what could be nicer?

Witness the patience of the Greeks before and behind me in the bakery as I attempt clumsily to say in my shitty Greek that I would like two spanakopitas, parakalo.

Witness the young man who weighs produce at MyMarket who accompanies us, unasked, to other counters, offering to explain things.

Nice!

No?

L believes strongly in the Nice Greeks theory. As our household EU citizen, he has been busy applying to get an official number for every possible government agency and purpose.

“If this were France,” he marvels, “and I spoke no French, this would be intolerable. The Greeks are exceptionally nice.”

Nevertheless, warnings come.

The young woman at Vodafone who signed us up asked whether L. liked the Greeks.

“They are wonderful, so nice!” he enthused.

She looked grave. “Perhaps you do not know them well.”

A young woman who worked at the gym explained she had lived abroad for ten years and had been back for four. “But I have had about enough,” she spat in disgust.

I have only been here about a month, but have had several clues that the Greeks are perhaps not so nice, especially to other Greeks.

There were the prats in the hotel lobby. One afternoon I went down and the concierge was shouting at one, who shouted back, leaning forward with electric, nascent violence, until the concierge retreated and the prat sat back and began making noisy statements meant for the general public, shifting about with the roomy gestures of the aggressive male of the species establishing rights to territory, turning up the sound on his laptop, and in general asking to be delivered of a tranquillizer dart and sold to a zoo.

This could happen anywhere you find young men under thirty, though.

What doesn’t happen everywhere: On our checkout, to my surprise, the hotel owner embraced me warmly, introduced me to her son, and told me to come back, don’t be a stranger, have coffee, have breakfast, use our facility, tell them I said you could, as she filled my hands with a dozen packets of moist towelettes with the hotel address and phone number printed on them. This was the first time I had ever laid eyes on her.

Nice!

But then there was the morning at Carrefour, just before Easter, the shelves full of red eggs and the registers flanked by mournful cardboard icons instead of chocolate bunnies, when I was buying salad. It was an empty hour. One register was open, with one woman transacting. She screamed.

She screamed continuously, with a varied repertoire, high and plaintive or guttural and demanding, an aria of grief, or of retribution. I, understanding nothing, waited serenely and felt small bubbles of pleasure if she shrieked a word familiar to me from that morning’s Pimsleur lesson. A burly man in some enforcement uniform arrived and described something to her, slowly, with condescension. Unsatisfied but intimidated, she seemed to desire to climb over the counter while simultaneously backing away. Then another woman who looked managerial came out to employ her own lungs.

At last the screamer exited, distributing curses, and I was allowed to ring up my salad. After an exchange in which it was apparent I did not understand a word, the woman at the register called over an employee who fetched me an extra box of salad, since I had missed the “buy one get one” signs.

How nice the Greeks are!

Excessive smiling is not one of their faults, however. Take the three-year-old child who was trying either to take my money out of the ATM or to return a crumpled receipt into the slot from which it had emerged. His large father spotted this and lumbered over, glared at me, glared at his son, then dragged his glaring child away. In America or Asia, this exchange would have been punctuated by apologetic laughter. That is not Greek!

Glaring is Greek.


But they are still nice!

I think.

I end this with a final anecdote.

A young intern at the lab related to me the following.

She had gone the previous night to a free show, a tribute to a famous deceased dancer. The seats were first-come, first-seated, but a man directly in front of her was saving a spot for his wife.

As the time of the performance neared, an announcer told all who had no seats that they must now leave and come back another time, since free performances were being held all week. No one was allowed to save an empty seat.

A thimble-sized old Greek woman asked the man if she could sit down. He refused.

People began to protest. Give the old lady a seat.

No, he insisted.

Yes.

No.

More people joined. Now there was shouting. One woman, whom we will call Medea after our mascot above, took it personally. She stood and began to tap the man while exhorting him to give up his seat. She touched him first lightly, then not so lightly.

A small contingent decided it best to physically slot the old woman into the seat. They urged her along with encouraging pushes, saying sit down, sit down. The man leaned across the seat to block it. The old woman was inserted with difficulty into the seat. The man then grabbed the old woman and threw her bodily out.

Pandemonium. Medea was now resorting to full violence. The entire area was full of standing, shouting people. The old woman remained shaken, but not deterred.

Finally our (non-Greek) intern could bear it no longer. She stood up and gestured toward her seat. “Take it,” she said to the old woman, which is why she could not tell me whether the show was any good.

So, tell me: are the Greeks nice?

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§ 6 Responses to Are Greeks nice?

  • don says:

    One of my fondest memories of Greece as a college grad visitor was how effectively the Greek Babooshka ladies were able to push me out of the way to get across the street.
    None of what you describe surprises me.

  • Alexandra Tsitla kidou says:

    Hallo Tania!

    As you can see from my name and my long difficult surname, I am also Greek- actually I am Pontic Greek 3rd generation, but still very Greek!

    I was happily surprised to find out that both you and Luca live in Athens now! I wish I could be there to share my passion for perfumes with you (a passion that started when at the age of 8 or 9 my dad gave me Shalimar as a gift).

    I am currently abroad, finishing my PhD, and this situation gave me a “Martian” attitude to examine my own country from a distance, through a contrastive analysis. I felt blessed that I could integrate in the foreign society and benefit as much as I can. I found out that most of the defects I attributed to the Greek nation were found in the host country too- eg gossiping, but Westerners do it in a more implied, detached, and phlegmatic manner. Hence, to my utter amazement, I began to revise my opinion on the current Greek situation, and not only forgive but maybe appreciate some occasional emotional outbursts. At least you know who your friend/enemy is 🙂 But yes, I agree that we could work a bit to keep our temper!

    You will see the true Greek soul in the bonding of the families. In the sacrifices that the members of the family make for each other esp when someone is in dire straits. Also, in hospitality- Zeus, the most powerful God was the God of hospitality.

    Greece is facing a challenge right now, with no real friends by its side- we have neither been western Europeans, nor an eastern culture. And also we have faced corruption, paying now the price. We are at a crossroads between East and West, territorially and numerically small, but blessed with a tendency to question, deep rooted in our philosophy. Enjoy your stay, and hope Greece will not be “all Greek” to you!

    PS. It would be interesting if you asked one of your Greek friends to explain to you the word “Φιλότιμο” [filotimo]. It’s a word with no actual translation in any other language, and connotes good will and pride. Very Greek 🙂

    • Thank you, Alexandra! It is very true what you say, that Greece is neither east nor west, though it is without a doubt south. 🙂

    • P.S. I certainly will ask about Φιλότιμο. I had no idea what a Pontic Greek was and had to look it up: fascinating! This place is a shambles. It has a serious problem of talent drain, plus useless leadership, which can’t be unrelated to the first problem. Now that I pay Greek taxes I see that Greece’s tax policies also work to prevent foreigners from coming here to spend money, since there are bizarre systems of bookkeeping and tax penalties that make it a bad idea for, say, Europeans with a nest egg to retire to a nice beach house here. So everyone goes on holiday in Croatia instead, while this country that makes money from tourism finds it has to close museums and archaeological sites because austerity measures won’t allow it to keep them open. So even fewer tourists come. I find it hard to imagine how this is helping to pay the nation’s debt and I think Europe has lost its marbles, so to speak.

  • Alexandra Tsitla kidou says:

    Yes, I will have to agree with you Tania. The current leadership is crappy and puppets of Europe. There is a pronounced lack of inspiring and charismatic government. What do you expect when the leader of the particular political party was elected just because he was the son of a previous Prime Minister? And the same goes for the previous government too (Karamanlis)? No wonder the all kinds of complaints of the Greek nation and the foreigners who happen to be there. Tourists resort to the Turkish and Croatian options, and it’s such a pity.

    Thank you for looking up the Pontic Greek case. Here is a brief summary of this nation’s history, which is traced in the ancient Greek times- hence the Pontic Greek dialect is very close to ancient Greek! http://www.stbasiltroy.org/pontos/pontoshistory.pdf

    Hope you will enjoy yourself encountering gradually fewer problems, and you are more than welcome to visit me either in Thessaloniki or in our cottage in Florina (in the mountains, close to the lakes)-again up in the North! (you see, Pontic Greek people were placed in Northern Greece during the first immigration wave around 1922-3, to reinforce the Greek population close to the borders)

    Kind regards,
    Alexandra

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