The dominant demographic trend in Greece this century has been massive rural depopulation, so as a backcountry tramper you are both going back in time and bucking the tide. An 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, the hum of platia (plaza) discussions and tdvli (backgammon) games may subside as all eyes rivet on you and your luggage. To those assembled you are a distinct oddity, but established convention may inhibit them from addressing you. (In Greece the approaching party always greets the stationary group; this custom still applies strictly in the wilds but is beginning to break down in villages.) Once the ice is broken, questions – fuelled 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’s the case) as a sequel. A benevolent examination of your equipment may follow – walking sticks are always conversation pieces, as are high-tech packs and sturdy boots – but such scrutiny rarely becomes annoying. Rural Greeks are not covetous, and this absence of menace contributes to the enjoyment of hiking in Greece.
At this point, someone who’s visited your home town as a sailor or who has a close relative there may turn up, lending with their 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?’). Some returned expatriates and pensioners can have overly fond memories of the lands where they made their nest eggs and acquired the rudiments of what they consider culture, and may wish to bend your ear about how provincial Greece is or their neighbours are; they should be gently but firmly put off. An unconventional answer to the routine question ‘Well, is it better here or in your country?’ can induce blessed silence. They, or someone of like sentiments, may pop another and more insidious question: ‘Why are you going on foot when they just built a new road to your destination?’
The query underlines a 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 rural Greece. Additionally, the old byways seem to bear connotations of outright 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 kalderfmia, 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 treasury of water, pasture, timber, 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 initially told that no path exists, and to use the road. Sometimes this is true; in other cases the locals may have sized you up and decided that the terrain ahead is beyond your capabilities. At such times you may have to deliver an oral resumg of your hiking experience, perhaps noting successful passage of an arduous or faint section of trail the day before that your audience is likely to be familiar with. Or give as ‘references’ acquaintances who have done successfully 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 hesitancy can be attributed to a Greek host’s natural instinct to spare a visitor the unpleasantness of getting lost, but you can’t discount the element of embarrass- ment over the past. The permanent committee of kafenio busybodies, like the chorus in ancient Greek drama, will always be ready to offer negative advice or express doubt as to your eventual success, 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 (or six or seven pessimistic opinions in a row) – there is almost always a way.
Fortunately such hesitation in giving instructions is rare. A request for assistance, even if delivered in halting Greek, generally yields an elaborate, unequivocal response, assisted by the full repertoire of Greek hand gestures to ensure comprehension. To banish any ambiguity you may be escorted to the edge of the village and have assorted landmarks along the distant path pointed out to you.
Directions may be given in tandem with hospitality (filoxenia); much has been said and written about this legendary Greek trait, and it generally applies doubly 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 polite to always accept a coffee or stronger drink; more elaborate offers may require some discretion or diplomacy. (You should not attempt to reciprocate on the spot, but a postcard from your home town upon return will be hugely appreciated, and pinned on the wall for posterity.)
Extraordinary generosity is deeply rooted in the Greek py sche and goes back thousands of years. In the more distant past a stranger represented an unknown, possible hostile power and the bestowal of food and shelter was a method of placation; who could tell if the visitor might not be a god in disguise, come to check on mortals’ behaviour? Certainly a residue of these sentiments persists, but today the open-handedness is largely an expression of faith and pride. A shepherd might offer you the last bowl of milk, confident that tomorrow will surely bring another. In their capacity to set a table for you or order you a dritik, any Greek is your peer, be you a mule driver or a visiting dignitary.
Filoxenia, and that fraction of the pessimists’ mutterings that has a solid basis, will be jointly responsible for the 25% extra you should routinely add to any estimate of time given to reach your destination. Mountain Greeks, up to amazingly advanced ages, cover ground with yard-long strides that will leave you (especially if pack-laden) breathless. Even assuming you can match their pace, you will always be delayed by weather, wildflowers, dogs, or other chance encounters.
You are enjoined by courtesy to at least exchange a few words with any person you meet on the trail, and it’s the least you can do by way of thanks for someone who gives you supplementary directions or shows you that hidden spring when you’re dying of thirst. If they sense they have an interested audience, those left behind in the mad rush to Athens can tell awfully good tales – anything from a personal history of the last war to the current activities of the EC in the neighbourhood, by way of a local bestiary and catalogue 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 (though Walkmans are making their appearance in some of the wealthier stanes).
Urban Greeks may already be one or two generations removed from their rural ancestry, and the separation may be sufficient to lend a nostalgia for the country that is usually absent in the villagers themselves. You may find carloads of townees or walking parties stopping you, the apparently well-equipped foreigner, to ask for directions. Intentions are commendable (‘We’ve never been up here and decided to have a look.’) but the shepherd’s savvy and the inclination to meet the mountains on their own terms may be lacking. Once in a while you come across an individual, perhaps 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 landscape, are to be cherished.
Although hospitality may initially overshadow all other considerations, and differences between you and your hosts are not dwelt upon, extended discussions may bring assorted resentments and irritants of Greek pride to the surface. There are small bones, never far out of reach, to pick with citizens of several nations. Americans may be taken to task for their government’s support of the 1967-74 junta, and for their continued perceived interference in local affairs; the behaviour of German and Italian occupying forces in WW Π has not, and will not, be forgotten; and Anglo-Greek relations have been badly strained by events in Cyprus and within the Greek resistance between 1942 and 1947. (On the other hand, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders may find themselves feted almost everywhere they go, especially in Crete.)
The traits of the marketplace may lead some merchants to squeeze extra dhrakhrfles out of visitors considered easy marks. You are at some disadvantage in countering this, since as a foreigner your earning power is double or triple that of a Greek; a visit to a grocery store, a clothes shop and electrical appliance outlet respectively will provide you with a current scale of values and clue you in as to what people are up against economically of late.
Food and transportation prices are to a large extent government-set and nationally standardised. Just about anything else, from souvenirs to boot repairs, is negotiable within small limits – gauging those parameters is part of learning the ropes.