COUNTRY GREEKS AND CITY GREEKS

The overriding demographic trend in Greece for the past 60 years has been massive population movement away from the hinterlands to urban areas. You, as a backcountry tramper, are not only going back in time but bucking the tide as well; my Athens cobbler once introduced me to acquaintances as “the man who’s always going up into the mountains we’ve tried so hard to leave.”

As you step off the bus at the end of the line, all eyes may rivet on you and your luggage; the dull roar of platia (plaza) discussions and tavli (backgammon) games subsides. To those assembled you are a marvel, a distinct oddity, but established convention may inhibit them from addressing you. (In Greece the approaching party always greets the stationary group; this custom is still strictly followed in the wilds but is beginning to break down in villages.) Once the ice is broken questions, fueled by roughly equal proportions of good-heartedness, boredom, curiosity and wariness, come back-to-back: “Where are you from?” and “Where are you headed?” are the standard openers, with “Why are you alone?” (if that is the case) as a sequel. A benevolent scrutiny of you and your equipage may follow—walking sticks are invariably conversation pieces, as are high-tech packs and sturdy boots—but such scrutiny is no cause for alarm. Rural Greeks are scrupulously honest and this absence of menace is one of the factors that contributes to the enjoyment of hiking in Greece.

At this point, someone who’s visited your hometown as a sailor or who has a close relative there will turn up, lending with his reminiscences a veneer of sophistication to what may be a rustic scene indeed; somebody at the next table may have only a hazy idea of global geography. (“New Zealand? Is that near South Africa?”) Certain mturned expatriates and pensioners can have overly fond memories of the lands where they made their nest eggs and acquired the rudiments of what they regard as culture, and may wish to bend your ear about how provincial Greece is or their neighbors are; they should be gently but firmly put off. They, or someone of like sentiments, may pop another and more insidious question: “Why do you go on foot when they just built a new road to your destination?”

The query underlines a basic logic prevalent throughout the developing world: namely, that nobody could possibly trek for pleasure. Walking is associated with backwardness and toil, with the hand implements and 12-hour days that were the rule before progress conferred its mixed blessings on the rural populace. In Greece, additionally, the old by-ways seem to bear connotations of shame, as leftovers from the bad old days when the Turks ruled (never mind that some of the finest architectural and engineering feats of medieval Greece—delicate bridges, finely paved kalderimia, and handsome mansions—were completed during the supposedly sepulchral Turkokratia). Country Greeks, like many peoples eking out a subsistence living, regard their surroundings as a work place and a resource, a repository of water, pasturage, lumber, game, honey and herbs, and usually not something to be enjoyed for its own sake.

These subtle but nonetheless real attitudes may account for any resistance met when asking villagers for directions. On rare occasions you may be told initially that no path exists, and to go use the road. Sometimes this is true; in other cases the native(s) may have sized you up and decided that the route ahead is beyond your capabilities. At such times you may have to deliver an “oral resume” of your hiking experience, perhaps dwelling on a particularly arduous or faint section of trail that your informant is likely to be familiar with. Or give as “references” friends who successfully did last year what you wish to do now—they may be remembered. This may elicit complete instructions for continuing on your way, delivered, however, with an air of “Since you insist….” Part of this reluctance can be attributed to a Greek host’s natural instinct to spare the visitor the unpleasantness of getting lost, but one cannot discount the element of embarrassment over the past. The busybodies of the kafeneio committee, like the chorus in ancient Greek drama, will always be ready to offer negative advice or express doubt as to your successful passage, which doesn’t help your state of mind as you plunge onward into the little-known. If you find yourself in such a situation, persist until you find a sympathetic villager—there is almost always a way.

Fortunately, such hesitation in giving instructions is rare. A request for assistance, especially if delivered in Greek (however imperfect), is generally met with an elaborate, unequivocal response, assisted by the full repertoire of Greek hand gestures to ensure comprehension. Directions may even be tendered in tandem with hospitality (filoksenia) much has been said about this legendary Greek trait, and it generally goes double in rural areas. Fruits of the season are routinely offered to wayfarers passing villagers’ front doors; more involved invitations may result in all-day or all-night drinking, eating or even staying sessions. It’s always the proper * time to be treated to a coffee or an ούζο; more elaborate offers may require some discretion or diplomacy. (You should not attempt to reciprocate on the spot, but a letter, or better yet, a post card from your hometown upon return will be hugely appreciated, and pinned on the wall for posterity.)

Extraordinary generosity is deeply rooted in the Greek psyche and goes back thousands of years. In the old days a stranger represented an unknown, possibly hostile power and the bestowal of food and shelter was a method of placation; then again, who could tell if the visitor might not be a god in disguise, come to check on humankind’s behavior? Certainly a residue of these sentiments persists, but today the

open-handedness is largely an expression of faith and pride. A shepherd may offer you his last bowl of milk, confident that tomorrow will surely bring another. In his capacity to set a table for you, or give you a drink, any Greek is your peer, be you a mule driver or visiting dignitary.

Filoksenia, and that fraction of the naysayers’ pessimism that has solid foundation, will be jointly responsible for the 25 percent extra you should routinely add to any estimate of time given to reach a destination. Greeks, up to amazingly advanced ages, cover ground with seven-league strides that will leave you (especially if pack laden) breathless. Even assuming you can match their pace in motion, you will always be delayed by dogs, weather, wildflowers or other chance encounters. You are enjoined by courtesy to chat a bit with any person you meet along the way, and it’s the least you can do by way of thanks for the one who gives you supplementary directions or shows you that hidden spring when you’re dying of thirst. If they sense they have a willing and interested audience, those left behind in the mad rush to Athens can spin awfully good yarns—anything from a personal history of the last war to the current activities of the Common Market in their area, by way of a local bestiary and catalog of legends. You will have learned far more than from any tourist office or library book, and relieved the monotony of the days that press down on isolated monks, barley threshers or high meadow dwellers who ordinarily have only transistor radios for company.

Town Greeks may already be one or two generations removed from their rural ancestry, and the separation may be sufficient to impart a nostalgia for the country that is usually absent in hard-pressed villagers. You may find carloads of townees, or walking parties, stopping you, the seemingly well-equipped foreigner, to ask for directions. Intentions are commendable (“We’ve never been up here and decided to come look”), but the shepherds’ savvy and/or the inclination to meet the mountains on their own terms may be lacking. Every so often you come across an individual, often a village innkeeper or an Alpine Club branch official, in whom the desire and the know-how are happily wedded. Such acquaintances, and the resulting added appreciation of the countryside, are to be treasured.

In the hills the precepts of filoksenia overshadow all other considerations, and differences between your hosts and yourself are not dwelt upon; city Greeks in their own environment may be another story. The current nationalist bent of Greek politics and the swarms of foreigners act as irritants to the country’s pride; there are small bones, never far out of reach, to pick with natives of several nations. Americans may be taken to task for their government’s support of the 1967-74 junta, and for continued perceived interference in local affairs; the behavior of the German occupying forces in the Second World War has not been forgotten; and Anglo-Greek relations have been badly strained by events in Cyprus and within the Greek resistance during the period 1942-47. (Conversely, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders may find themselves feted almost everywhere they go, especially in Crete.)

Although out-and-out stealing is taboo and considered a serious breach of filoksenia, not to mention a sullying of a Greek’s filotimo (literally, love of honor), the prevailing Levantine fondness for money may lead merchants to squeeze extra dhrachmes out of visitors considered easy marks. You are at some disadvantage in efforts to counter this, since as a foreigner your earning power is roughly triple that of a Greek and in all likelihood you’re outfitted with an expensive camera, charge cards and hard currency. Obviously it helps to be an inconspicuous consumerand to learn the ropes quickly so that you can request a fair deal. Greeks are not as emotionally invested in their commercial cat-and-mouse game as you may be in your indignation at being initially quoted a ridiculous price, and they’ll respect you if you understand when it’s appropriate to bargain and proceed to do so. Groceries and produce are almost always a fixed price, although cost may fluctuate wildly from one shop, or region, to the next. Transport fares, taxis excepted, are nationally standardized and don’t require any wrangling or undue attention. Fees for special services, such as boot repair, do depend on your bargaining power and facility in Greek—get a general estimate beforehand if it’s your first visit to the shop.

 

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