Mary Coustas on how to be Greek

Author: Mary Coustas
Photography: jason loucas

Loving the Greeks is like having an illicit affair. There's the promise of something magical, hope that things will change, that the torture will eventually end and that ultimately being so reckless emotionally will lead to blissful happiness. Sadly, love, Greece and the Greeks don't always work like that. So how do you survive a place that is so steeped in culture, conceit and contradiction? Simple. Along with your passport, ticket and euros, make sure you pack infinite patience and a decent dose of good humour.

We travel to open our eyes and minds to the world. To allow such transformative experiences to change us forever. To find out who we are by what we emotionally respond to. And there's plenty to react to when you travel to Greece. Social scientists tell us that we come to over 30 conclusions about a person within the first 10 seconds of meeting them. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, says we have the ability to form valid conclusions about anything in seconds. If this is true, then you will form a pretty rich picture of Greece before you even leave the airport terminal.

The moment you arrive at Athens Eleftherios Venizelos Airport you will notice the military security, replete with army fatigues and semi-automatic weapons. The tall, handsome young men look professional and intimidating. But when an attractive woman steps through the metal detectors they will invariably wink and smile charmingly - at the precise moment when they really should be looking at the monitor screening your bag. Very flattering, on the one hand, yet quite disconcerting when it comes to homeland security. You're already learning a lot about priorities in Greece.

Progress through customs and once an official has finished talking on his mobile phone, sipping his café frappé or gossiping with a co-worker, he might then get around to stamping your passport. This is one of the reasons you'll need a tolerance for lengthy queues everywhere in Greece. Before long, you will learn that "customer service" has a whole other meaning here. A while ago, a friend was flying business class on Olympic Airlines - and no, those of you who have ever flown Olympic, that's not the only funny bit. At meal time, my friend was served moussaka, which he was not into at all, and he politely asked whether there was anything else. The Greek flight attendant cocked an eyebrow and answered sarcastically, "Yeah, sure, I have some youvarlakia [a rather special dish of meatballs in an avgolemono sauce] cooking in the oven. I'll just go see if it's ready." Needless to say, my friend is still waiting for his promised meatballs.

It'll be the taxi ride from the airport to Athens, however, that will perhaps give you the greatest insight into what is required to be a true Greek. First, don't assume when you get into the cab that the cab will be yours alone. Don't be surprised when the cab driver continues to load up with other unsuspecting tourists without consulting with you, until the "not so squeezy" 45-minute taxi ride resembles a mobile sardine tin. Chances are your first dialectic moment will be here: over the right tariff rate, say, or the "fastest" route, the smoking, the reckless driving, the "optional" airconditioning, and finally, of course, the tip. Say nothing, be polite, expect a fair go, and you are doomed. Speak up, raise your voice, be outraged, show no public embarrassment, just like all the native Greeks: it will be your first, most valuable lesson in how to not be taken for a ride in Greece.

Great philosophers say the soul knows only two emotions: love and fear. And that life is about equals and opposites. The Greeks know this instinctively. They recognise that both fear and love are necessary for a passionate, rich life. And yet no matter what the opposite is or what their equal is, Greeks will miraculously still end up claiming the advantage.

My mother, for instance, is five-foot-one. Short by any standard, yet she declares, as though stating the obvious, that she is in fact tall. When, stunned and bemused, I challenge this fact, without skipping a beat she reels off a litany of four-foot-ten relatives whom she considers midgets by comparison. There's a charming arrogance to us Greeks. We have excessive self esteem and believe it's the right of all Greeks to be supremely proud. Even to the point of delusion.

Greece compels you to feel. It feeds a curious mind, flatters the ego and lures the imagination. Our history and culture reinforce our strength and individualism, just as they underline our sense of community.

The recent Greek renaissance is awe-inspiring. The catalyst for change was the Athens Olympics, a triumph of creativity, beauty and art. The Games invited the world to re-examine Greece just as the Greeks began to re-invent themselves. So from the architectural brilliance of the new Acropolis Museum or the breathtaking beauty of the monasteries of the Meteora to the innovative, world-class restaurants or the simplicity and allure of its hundreds of islands, Greece will beguile you. As it has me.

Finally, to become a true Hellene, you will have to embrace and/or accept a thousand quirks and contradictions: most people still smoke; queues are horizontal; food is religious, religion is social; men aren't afraid to flirt brazenly and openly; frail little old women aren't afraid to push, shove and bite anyone to get on public transport; priests wear Ray Bans; bank tellers will ignore customers no matter how long the waiting queues; socialising is a daily necessity; hair removal is a major concern; older Greeks have a phobia (that's Greek for fear, of course) that a wind draft will kill you quicker than a bullet; most new buildings look unfinished (because the final tax is due when the roof has been completed); multitasking Greek motorbike riders ride, smoke, talk on the mobile and are still able to gesticulate with both hands at the same time.

The theatre of daily Greek life and the people of Greece will envelop you. And whether you know it before you go or discover it when you're there, Greece will without doubt notice you, uplift you, soothe you, emancipate you, provoke you, amuse you, and most definitely alter you.







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