Greek customs and habits from a foreigner's point of view
by Birgit Smidt Sneftrup and Bo Transbol, Denmark.
The following is a collection of personal experiences, in combination
with a book review of a Danish book called "Graeske maend
og andre mennesker" (Greek men and other humans) by Lone Spanheimer,
ISBN 87-614-0112-9. As far as we know, the book hasn't yet been
The white trees
The fact that the trunks of the trees are often painted white (limewash) in Crete
and Greece is primarily to fight the ants. And besides it looks nice, too!
The rosary or worry beads
The rosary that most of the Greek men are holding in their hands,
sitting outside the kafeneion (cafe in Greece), has no religious
meaning, but is only a way of killing time. Try and buy one,
it's actually much more difficult to swing it than it looks like.
The iron bars
The iron bars sticking out from the roof are exclusively there
for the purpose of a later extension of the house. They have
NOTHING to do with exemptions from taxpaying, as long as the
house isn't yet finished. (It's a good story though)!
Eating and waiting alone at a taverna in Greece.
A single person sitting at a taverna, can wait quite a long time
for the waiter to show up. In Greece it's very unlikely that
anybody eats alone. He/she must be waiting for someone. For the
waiter it will be very impolite and bumptious, to ask for the
order before all the guests have arrived. This has changed in
the major tourist places, and especially for tourists, but you
can run into this phenomenon in villages of Crete and Greece.
When the Greeks go out for dinner, they always pay cash. NO cheques
and credit cards! And they have always got money enough to pay
the bill for their company too. Not being able to pay, would be humiliating beyond
Getting a house loan
Unfinished buildings is a common sight in Greece. The reason is
that greek people build what they need today and leave the rest
of the building unfinished for the future. It may seem that the
Greeks are constantly building houses - and they are. Most Greek
parents build a house for each daughter, but not for their sons
(as they are supposed to marry a girl who will get a house from
her parents). Often it is also the daughter that inherits her
parents' or grandparents' house when they die.
The Greek social security system
The Greek social security system (IKA) is still being built up.
Having financial problems will first lead you to your very closest
family, asking for help. The family will lend you money indefinitely,
and it's now a point of honour to pay back the loan.
The Greek toilets
One can wonder and one can be disgusted at the standard of the
Greek toilets. Part of the explanation might be, that the Greek
himself never uses a public toilet. A Greek will do almost whatever
it takes, to use his own toilet! So you see,
a problem for the tourist!
The Greek men in the kafenio (cafe)
You might get the impression that Greek men always sit on cafes
and drink. They do often go to a kafenion, but not always, and
rarely for a very long time. Often they have a cup of Greek coffee
only. Most of them stay there for a short time, just enough to
hear what have happened and also to make an appointment with
for example the local electrician or the local bricklayer. Of
course, Greek women can go to the kafenion as well, but most
of them don't want to, and besides they hear all the gossip from
the husband when he comes home. For about 20 years ago, you would
always find at least two kafenions in a village, no matter how
small it was, but with different colours. The colours indicated
the political party of the owner of the kafenion. This way you
avoided political quarrels. Rather practical! It can still be
found, but it has become more and more rare as less and less
people care about politics in Greece.
- Read a review about the book "39
Coffee Houses and one Barber Shop"
Theft is very, very rare in Greece. It's simply considered too
humiliating to steel other people's things or money. On the other
hand it's OK to cheat a bit - especially if they don't like the
person they cheat.
The Greek priest
You see the Greek priest - or pappas, as they are called - everywhere,
as you can't miss them in their long, black dress and high hat.
They are not obliged to wear their priest clothes all the time,
but they do, as it's most practical and they are easier to identify
this way. The Greek priests can marry and have children, just
like in the Lutheran church. But you will never see a woman priest. This is not
allowed by the Greek Orthodox Church.
Tips for tourists in Greece:
Paying for a sun bed
At most beaches you will have to pay for a sun bed and an umbrella.
If you think that it is just people trying to get money out of
the tourists you're very wrong. It's a job in Greece having a
piece of a beach. A man seeks for a particular part of the beach
each year, and he pays a sum of money, to be allowed to put up
his sun beds and umbrellas. During the season it's now his responsibility,
that this part of the beach is kept properly. The price you pay
will depend on where the beach is situated, what kind of facilities
(taverna, toilets, showers) there are. The tourist police checks
that he does his job properly.
In Greece you much live with the GMT-time, and in this case GMT
is an abbreviation for "Greek Maybe Time". The Greek
people have a very different attitude to time. When the bus is
scheduled to come 10.30, it will come between 10 and 11, depending
on the traffic, how many people the driver had met and felt he
should talk with, and many other small things. Or a local might
tell you that the bus will arrive AFTER 4 p.m.! Then he hasn't
promised too much. The Greek people don't live by the clock.
The Greeks also have a different opinion about when it's morning,
afternoon and evening. You say Good Morning until 12. If you
have agreed to meet in the 'afternoon', the earliest meant by
this will be 6.00 p.m.! In Greece, the evening meal begins no
earlier than 9.00 p.m. Also no one will think anything of it
if you telephone at 10.00 p.m. in the evening. However, 'siesta'
time, between 3.00 p.m. and 5 p.m. is held as sacred. During
the siesta, though, it is very unpopular to disturb someone.
Entering a Greek Church or Monastery
If you want to see a Greek church or monastery inside, you must
be properly dressed. It's considered rude to enter a church if
your shoulders and knees aren't covered. This rule goes for both
men and women. So if you as a tourist wants to be polite against
the country you're visiting, have this in mind.
Invited out by a Greek
If a Greek invites you out for dinner or a drink, don't EVER try
to make him "split the bill in half" as we often do
here in Northern Europe. I know some tourists who wanted to be
nice to their host for the evening, and they snapped the bill
out of his hand and paid it. Never has a friendship been that
close to ruin, and the Greek man was more embarrassed than you
could ever imagine!
Invited to a Greek home
If you are invited to a Greek home, remember to bring something
for the hosts. Flowers or chocolate is the most common. If the
occasion is a name day, you must bring a present, which you deliver
when you enter the house. The present will be put together with the rest
of the presents on a table - unopened. The Greeks will open the
gifts when all the guests have left. If he or she doesn't like
the gift they don't have to pretend a lot of gratitude that they
really don't feel. Actually it is a very practical habit.
Even if it says everywhere that tips are included in the price,
it is common to give tips if you're satisfied with the service. About 10% would be appropriate. But remember not
to "over-tip", something that this little story explains well: Some friends wanted to tip the waiter at the hotel where
they had stayed for 2 weeks, so they left 30 Euro the last
evening. When they were 10 steps away from their table the waiter
stood in front of them saying that they had mistaken the Greek
money. They explained that they hadn't. The waiter then joined
them in the bar, where they had coffee and Metaxa, and later, drinks
and ouzos. When they called the barman for the bill, they found
out that the bill, which was much higher than 30 euros,
was already paid by the waiter they had tipped before.
Facts about Greek women
- Officially there is equality between the sexes, but still women
are paid less.
- About 40 % of the Greek women are engaged in active employment.
- Theoretically Greek women are liable for military service, but
only volunteers are taking part in the service, and the women seem
to be satisfied with this situation.
- When divorcing, all belongings are equally split between man
- Today a Greek woman may keep her maiden name when marrying.
- Today Greek women only give birth to half as many children, as
they did before World War 2. The birth-rate is the second lowest
in Europe. Italy has the lowest birth-rate.
- Since 1982 it has been legal to have a civil marriage. But still
95 % are married religiously in the church.
- Arranged marriages are forbidden by law. Paying dowry is illegal
too. But still you can see examples of both!
- The average age for Greek women is 80 years. Men can stand the
women for 75 years only!