When you look at a map of Greece it seems as though the bottom half of the country exploded and the resulting shrapnel formed into the two thousand odd scattered islands which make up the Greek Islands. Despite what geologists, evolutionists or any manner of scientist says I don’t think this could have been the result of tectonic movement, volcanic activity or any of those other fancy explanations they love to throw at us but simply the pleasure of God creating a stunning archipelago for mankind to enjoy. Whether the proliferation of churches strung across the land is any acknowledgement of this I don’t know but what I do know is that the islands are simply magical in their beauty. Windmills, churches and flat topped houses in the traditional blue and white; cloudless skies, small hidden beaches, warm water, a consistent ocean breeze and an assortment of foods to placate your hunger – this is surely the land of the gods after all. In such idyllic settings it’s no wonder the likes of Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes spent their years helping form the foundations of an incredible empire here – not having to look too far to imagine what perfection may actually consist of.
Since the English recognised Greece’s potential in the 1960’s, tourists have been coming in increasing number ever since. 2005 saw 18 million tourists flock to its shores, 2006 almost 20 million and in 2007 it certainly felt as much, if not more, although today it attracts a far more diverse crowd. I had little idea why Greece was such a popular tourist destination but all was to be revealed when I landed in Athens in the beginning of July.
Greece’s influence on the western world is phenomenal, it being the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, politics, western literature, the Olympics and very influential in terms of ancient history, language, education, mathematics, physics, engineering and astronomy. I certainly arrived with a reverence for a nation that had at one stage been at the forefront of civilisation and was anxious to explore its various ins and outs. Passing through derelict, dusty streets on the hour-long bus journey from the airport to the coast gave me the idea that Greece may not be revelling in the golden age of superiority that it once was. However, some brief research on the web informed me that Greece was one of the happiest countries in the world, in terms of quality of life, and so there must still be plenty of reasons for them to be happy. I made it my ambition to find these out!
The islands, unlike the mainland, generally have a steady wind negotiating the soaring temperature down and for this reason I was very happy to board the ferry and bid farewell to Athens, which had recently been in the news for heat waves. Ferry travel is the way to explore the Greek Isles and the size of my ferry was testament to its popularity. Literally the size of a small shopping centre it was packed full of tourists and locals, café’s and restaurants and contained a thousand places to sit, eat and talk of the marvels of Greece. From the port of Piraeus it was a five-hour ferry ride south-east to Paros island, in the Cyclades group, which was to become my home base for the next month. Not being the type of person who rushes around taking photos of all the major landmarks and claiming that I had seen a place, I chose rather to do things slightly differently and really see Greece, from what would hopefully be a locals perspective. My plan was to settle down in one town for most of my stay with a bit of the island hopping at the end to give me the tourist’s perspective of Greece.
After a journey of relaxing on the back of the ferry, drink in hand whilst watching the ocean slowly change colour as I chatted to some fellow travellers I finally arrived at the town of Parikia. It was late at night but the temperature was still around 30 degrees and the town alive with people of all ages buzzing around drinking, talking, romancing and ultimately enjoying the trance the island lifestyle puts you in. I was to discover the explanation for the late night frenzy the following day when I woke up to a sweltering 40 degree heat and sent myself straight to a cold shower – which it turns out later was a good idea because by the end of the day the water supply, on the baking hot roof, only provides boiling hot water!
I stayed with a university friend of mine who was in a rented apartment, up on a hillside in a little village called Pounda, 4 km’s south of the main town where I had landed. If you had ever imagined having the Karoo next to the sea, then that’s the best picture I can give you of the Greek islands. The islands generally have a central mountain that slopes gently down to a range of beaches with various crops, animals and vineyards neatly separated by old-fashioned stone walls and dirt roads all interspersed with whitewashed buildings. After flights, busses, ferries and a scooter ride it was awesome to finally arrive and settle down. After catching up on some much needed sleep I strolled down to the beach where my friend was working at the local kite boarding school – another reason I chose Pounda was the world class kite surfing conditions. So after meeting his cheery Greek boss, throwing off half my clothing (my shirt) and having a dip in the sea I finally managed to settle down into a hammock, lengthy novel in hand, to begin my holiday in Greece. And this, more or less, was to be my lifestyle for the next month – swimming, reading, sleeping, eating, chatting to locals, exploring the island on foot and scooter and doing as many water sports as possible.
The main attractions of Greece include boat cruises, diving, sailing, windsurfing, visiting archaeological sites and general exploration of the beaches and street markets. While some, like the caravanning Europeans, settle at one beach and enjoy the water sports lifestyle others seem to island hop, staying in B&B’s and ticking off the islands attractions by way of arranged tours. I married the two and spent hours on my scooter exploring the islands from my home base, stopping occasionally to wander the streets of a town or to swim at an enticing beach in some idyllic location. Unfortunately since the inception of the Euro, Greece’s value for money has gone down from what used to be one of the cheapest places to travel in Europe. Luckily for me the good thing about staying in one place is that after a little while you start getting to know people and pretty soon we were invited over for dinner by some local and treated to a traditional Greek meal. The following evening we boarded a ferry for birthday drinks at the neighbouring island, Anti-Paros, having to return by 01:20 to catch the last ferry back or risk being stuck till first light. Pretty soon the guys at the local dive shop were our friends and so that meant free lunches here and there, use of their equipment and facilities and some more people to hang out with. The best was that the Kite School’s boss was a friend of the owner of the best hotel in Pounda and so pretty soon we were eating at the buffet for half price, after some hefty negotiations with the shrewd Pakistani manager.
This was to become the much-appreciated norm in my stay in Greece as every few days someone would have you over for drinks, a meal or just repay your friendship with a beer at the beach bar. This lovely symbiosis I started becoming a part of was extremely beneficial and it meant that there was always something to do and someone to do it with and generally for next to nothing. The only loser in this closely-knit system was unfortunately the tax man, who ironically rocked up (via the police) asking for records of people working, licenses, receipts etc. all of which was obviously in vain. The local cash economy worked on such wonderfully simple principles: do everyone favours and expect the same in return. It truly was fabulous. No IRP5’s, banks, queue’s, interest rates, oil price shocks and the other complicated financial mess that leaves you feeling that you’re getting somewhat ripped off in the process. It means that everyone is generous and hospitable and if you’re not you will be ostracised – and well you should be. To live in a community where you don’t need a lawyer, an accountant and excessive advertising means that you buy something because you have someone’s word on it (which still means something) and it will be of good quality because their reputation is at stake.
Work is a big part of life for the average Greek. Mind you work is not really the same there as it is back here in Cape Town, or maybe even civilisation. An average Greek working day consists of about 12 hours. You wake up, go down to the store/tavern/beach and talk to everyone there – 2 hours. You open things up, set out the tables etc. – 10 minutes. Then you argue for four hours about how it should be set up, during which time all the neighbours/clients/staff/passing cleaners/delivery men all chip in their 2 cents by which time you are so tired you go have a siesta, with perhaps a swim somewhere in between, to cool off. Occasionally a brave tourist will break the local conversation with a polite ‘how much is this, please’ to which starts another hour of conversation in a medley of broken English, rapid Greek and 400 en’daxi’s (which means O.K) interspersed throughout. At the end of which the owner has forgotten what he wanted, the neighbour what he’s doing away from his shop and the tourist has missed his ferry and is wondering why he even bothered.
You see talking in Greece is work or should I say work is talking. Although to make more sense of it work is life. One would own a store, live on the floor above; with the grandparents above that and that would be life. Having someone come in and want to buy something is such a natural thing it would be like going to your neighbour and having a cup of tea. It has its benefits – you feel like you have an intimate relationship with every purveyor of perishable good on the planet. But if you wanted to get your recently injured kid, who needs urgent medical attention, down the street to the doctor it would take 16 hours, 42 coffees and 912 conversations ranging from the football team to the remarkable size of sea cucumbers off the isle of Patmos before you had reached him. The Spanish may have the word manyana but for Greeks it’s a lifestyle. When asked to do something or provide one tiny piece of information it takes a full hour to skirt around the subject only to come up with no result, complain that they are too busy with work (whatever!) and that you can come back tomorrow. Greece is a journey back in time to what life used to be like before capitalism sent us into this frenzy of consumerism with a ‘time is money’ mentality. There is still the gossip that floats around the cobbled streets of the town, the relationships built over work and the possibility of real stories and friendships that television has somewhat replaced. Greece is wonderfully slow and I think it is this pace that attracts so many tourists who come here to wind down and reflect. It gives you time to just sit and think about life, be a bit philosophical, have in-depth conversations with your friend about which bread would be best suited with your favourite jam and take a general interest in what the rest of the world would deem trivial.
Going shopping at the supermarket was always a challenge as the names of most of the products had Greek lettering and the barcodes and prices never seemed to match, which made for some interesting eating later on. However we finally met an Egyptian attendant who was only too happy to help fellow Africans find the bargains and avoid the pitfalls of bad purchases. It was interesting to see South African made charcoal braai packs for sale and our, what must be, world famous oranges. The best part of the adventure was speeding from supermarket to bakery to green grocer on our scooter, often three to a bike with one helmet between us, to find the best deals and products around the main town Parikia. The highlights were definitely the yoghurt, mixed with honey and nuts, literally anything from a bakery and the infamous gyros – pretty much a wrap stuffed with meat, diced vegetables and sour cream inside. The tap water, which the locals didn’t drink, meant that a fair portion of my finances were spent supporting the local beer Mythos, a far better European Amstel and of course bottled water. An average day for me would consist of breakfast while watching the local news and hilarious, but probably misunderstood, Greek adverts. Next, a scooter ride down to the beach where a full day’s activity of snorkelling, kiting, wind-surfing, swimming and other such activities would be pursued. In between all that there would be a trip to the bakery for lunch, a brief siesta on the hammock and some lively international conversation on all manner of topics. This daily routine was far better than my touristy trip down to the world-famous Santorini, paying through the nose to see the extinct volcano and hot springs. It was one of the most simple and enjoyable holidays I have ever had and has made me rethink holidays, the normal day to day life and more importantly how the two can be married into the perfect life.
So what is Greece, what’s it like to actually live, eat and interact with Greeks? Greece is someone embracing you while commenting that you smell. Greece is arguing for hours about aimless, insignificant things that make the price of eggs seem like the discovery of nuclear fission. Greece is where everyone becomes involved in everyone else’s business and you can’t move without a hundred people’s opinions. Greece is a lesson in patience, where I learned that lateness should be excused because talking to a friend is important. In Greece everyone is a politician, a philosopher and is most definitely right – or at least thinks so. It’s a country where you break the rules and two seconds later scream at someone doing the same thing. It’s a country of paradox. And I loved it.
So what, you may ask, happened to the cradle of western civilisation? After they achieved such heights in so many fields in the ancient world they now seem to have sat back, poured themselves a drink and just chat about life. Why isn’t the centre of the economic world Athens instead of London, New York and Beijing? Well you see the modern world seems to have missed it, whereas the Greeks have understood, much like their forefathers Plato and Aristotle. That life is meant to be enjoyed, that everyone is a philosopher and if we all take the time to stop and think about life, talk to the people we pass in the streets and have a coffee with them, then the world would be a better place, albeit at a slower pace.