In May, '06 I visited a portion of mainland Greece and some of its islands. The literature available talked much about the ruins and some about the history. What I found missing were cultural explanations, the sort of information that a Greek would take for granted, and possibly not even realize some customs are not practiced elsewhere, or certain conditions are not prevalent in other countries.
Here are a few things I wish I would have known before traveling to Greece.
Marble, marble everywhere
It makes walkways, floors, and counter tops, and of course statues. I even saw a car repair place with a marble floor. But sightseeing with a marble walkway beneath your feet is a dangerous proposition. The stones are not always flat, can be unevenly spaced with some missing altogether, and when marble is wet it can be as slippery as though oiled. The Greeks also have a habit of allowing an inch drop off on the sidewalk with no warning. As a result, when walking I saw more of where my feet were going than I did scenery.
Greece is a beautiful country. The mountains are spectacular, but I'm still not sure what makes them so special. The water is clear in magnificent hues of blue and green. On the mainland, I saw no graffiti and little litter. On some of the islands, the houses are all white, with color only on the shutters. On the sites of ruins, the public is allowed much closer to everything than in the States with only a thin rope to indicate the boundary. I saw no one cross it. Most of the sites that are of interest are on hills, and the climbing takes a bit more energy than the tour description might suggest. If you decide to visit, go out of your way to find the times fewer tourists are present.
The Greeks are known for their wonderful yogurt which is all made from goat's milk. Cows are very scarce, so they import their milk from Scandinavia. The EU has offered subsidies to the olive growers if they would cut down their olive trees and take up dairy farming "“ no takers. Not surprising, when you find out that olive trees require sunshine and a bit of pruning in the spring, and that is about it until the gathering in the fall. Instead of rising with the sun and milking cows twice a day, every day of the year, the olive grower is free most days to hang out with his buddies in the local taverna.
The Girls Room
Ladies, approach the rest room with assurance you will not sit on a wet seat, unless of course, an American woman preceded you in the stall. Be prepared to hunt diligently for the button that produces the flush. You've lucked out if you find it in sight on top of the tank. Rest rooms run from elegant to Turkish style (hole in the floor). You will also be delighted to notice the paper towels (miserably thin that they are) land in the receptacles instead of the floor.
On the Road
When driving along the highways, you will see many tiny, church-like buildings on the shoulder of the road. These go from the simple to the ornate, and are markers for where someone dear was killed. These little memorials contain data about the deceased.
Another puzzle when driving are the blue signs with a couple of lines of print and a red line crossed through it in the same fashion we have signs picturing a cigarette with a red line designating a "no smoking" area. I kept wondering what was being disallowed, or in some way negated and finally found the simple answer. The sign informs the traveler that they have just left a given town.
Even though recycling is just beginning to catch on in Greece, the people seem to have a real respect for their environment, witnessed by the lack of litter and graffiti. Pollution appears low by US standards for both air and water.
The Safety Net
Another mystery was the unfinished houses with no building materials in sight. These were explained by the Greek custom of starting a house for a baby daughter, and working on it slowly until she is married. At that time, her new husband moves into her house, and no matter what happens to the relationship, the daughter and her children always have a home. Most of what I heard of Greek customs seems to take into consideration the bottom line of human behavior. Smart people!
Ninety eight percent of Greeks are Greek Orthodox, so their customs dominate the social structure. Apparently almost all follow along with marriage, naming, christening and burial customs. Their cemeteries have the usual cross marker at each grave, but in addition there is a decorated box above ground about the size of a casket, painted white and perfectly rectangular. I was told they have such a small amount of dedicated space for cemeteries, remains are removed from the grave after 7 years, and the bones added to a special container in the church, thereby releasing the space for another person.
The Final Word, Money
At your local bank, get some money changed a week or so before you leave for Greece. You will do much better there than at the airport. ATM cards are primarily the way to go, but they have their downside. A Turkish bank ate mine and another friend found her card wouldn't work in any of the ATM's she tried. I would suggest you open a second account with a few hundred dollars (depending on your expected expenditures) and get an ATM card from that bank, as well, as your usual bank. That step would need to be done several weeks before departure. Carry one or two credit cards which can be used for larger purchases. Greece took only Master and Visa cards. Make copies of all of these items (as well as your passport and traveler's checks if you get them) and leave one copy with someone at home, and put a second copy in your luggage. And it never hurts to hide a few greenbacks for emergencies. Wear a money belt that cannot be separated from your body without your direct intervention.
Written by Anna-Kria King
Photography by Argossaronikos/Idra