Upon your arrival you will immediately notice the genuine but unobtrusive sense of ‘philoxenia’ – love of strangers - that the locals still maintain. Philoxenia is a wonderful word used to describe the way the Greeks treat strangers. It doesn’t matter where you are; whether you are just passing someone in the street, have been invited into someone’s house or just having a coffee or a meal somewhere; wherever you go in Greece you will be overwhelmed by the hospitality that the locals offer. Philoxenia is a way of life that the Greeks have maintained since antiquity. Notably in the Homeric epics there are many scenes where the stranger is seen as sacred and is well looked after.
In the Iliad Zeus turned against Troy because Paris broke the laws of hospitality and in the Odyssey when Telamachus visited Nestor in Pylos to seek news about his father, the King treated him like his own son and helped him in every possible way. According to legend, the Gods would very frequently assume human form and visit people in order to test their sense of hospitality, and with this in mind people would honour their quests and make sure that they were well cared for. In antiquity, when guests arrived, first they bathed, then they were fed and served the best wines of the house and only when the host was satisfied that the person was fully recovered from travelling, well fed and rested, would he embark on finding out who his guest was and the reason of the visit. These traditions are still sustained all over Greece but they are more prominent in areas that have not yet been discovered by mass tourism.
During your holiday you will have the opportunity to get close to the people and learn more about them and their country. The Greeks are a very open hearted and warm race and it doesn’t take long to get to know them. However, there are a few things that the traveller may not immediately recognise or know already, so we have included a few pieces of advice on Greek etiquette and public relations.
The Greeks are a very open hearted and warm race and it doesn’t take long to get to know them.
In Greece it is traditional for the newcomer to say hello first. A simple yia sas (used for both hello and goodbye) will suffice to make contact with the locals. Naturally in the larger towns you will notice that people are not as responsive but once you get away from the busy tourist places native hospitality will be immediately evident. A mere yia sas may lead to lunch or dinner and a great day spent in one of the local’s home with the family. People in the villages will happily receive you in the ‘kafeneia’ (village café). When you arrive say a loud ‘yia sas’ directed at everyone and sit somewhere close to them. If you have a drink, which will probably be bought for you by them, raise your glass and say stin iyia sas (to your health – cheers). This will be enough to show that you are being friendly and will probably lead to small talk – don’t worry if you don’t speak the language, you will definitely find some way of communicating even if it is by sign language! In these circumstances the Greeks are not interested in long discussions they just want to welcome you and show their friendly disposition.
In the more remote areas, especially when out walking, you will frequently come across locals. People in Greece are always prepared to help you out, give you advice on your route, offer you a drink or even share their lunch with you; all you have to do is approach them. It is always a nice idea to return their kindness by giving them something of your own. Never offer them money, though, as this may be seen as pity and will offend them in the worst possible way. A bottle of wine, a penknife, a thermos, anything that would be of use to them is always a good gift.
It is very important to understand Greek table manners in order not to offend but equally so as not to be offended! The tradition in restaurants is to order a variety of dishes, which are then placed at the centre of the table. People do not usually use side plates but everyone just dips in. Frequently these dishes, which are usually seen as starters, will be followed by a sumptuous main course, which again may be placed at the centre of the table. In the more commercialised places you will notice that many eating establishments have turned to the European way of each to their own but if you want to share your food just tell the waiter and he will place everything in the middle. Naturally this is a great way to try a variety of different specialities but it is also a good way to avoid disappointment when you realise that you ordered the wrong thing and the person next to you has secured the best dish in the house!
Continuing with food and drink, a very strong tradition of the Greek people is to ‘keraso’ (offer a drink). The way this works is that if you are a newcomer to an establishment it is customary that the person already there will ‘keraso’ you. If you join them then you will have the opportunity to buy them a drink in return but if you don’t join them it is probably better to offer them something next time you see them. Also it is common practice to ‘keraso’ to people you don’t know if they are sitting with people you do. The best way to deal with this is to buy a couple of bottles of whatever they are drinking and send them over to their table. It is found offensive to buy one person a drink and not the rest when there are lots of people sitting together, as the Greeks believe that if you are friendly with one of them then automatically you should see the others as friends too.
If during your stay you are invited to someone’s house for lunch or dinner it is customary to turn up empty handed unless it is a special occasion such as a nameday celebration or a birthday perhaps. Naturally, if it is a birthday celebration just as in England you should take a gift for the person who is celebrating. If the person is celebrating their nameday it is customary to take cakes and a small gift it is a young person, cakes and a bottle of whisky if it is for a male adult and cakes and flowers if it is a female adult. It sounds complicated but basically cakes are the thing to take whenever visiting people in Greece whatever the occasion! You can find sticky variety such a baklava, galaktoboureko and kataifi in all Greek cake shops although recently cream cakes seem to go down very well... the fancier the better!
This is just an idea of Greek etiquette, which is a terribly complex matter! It can be very easy to offend people without meaning to, though most rules don't generally apply to foreigners, who are not expected to know the customs. That said, it is always nice to get some things right. So, finally, if you become friendly with your accommodation owner during your stay and would like to leave a little something as a token of appreciation the best thing, again, is a box of cakes, possibly accompanied by a bottle of something or some flowers.
Stin iyia sas!