Greece Feature

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Quintessential Greece

If you want to get a sense of Greek culture and indulge in some of its pleasures, start by familiarizing yourself with the rituals of daily life. These are a few highlights—things you can take part in with relative ease.

The Greek Spirit

"Come back tomorrow night. We’re always here at this time," is the gracious invitation that usually terminates the first meeting with your outgoing Greek hosts.

The Greeks are open, generous, affectionate, and above all, full of a frank, probing curiosity about you, the foreigner. They do not have a word for standoffishness, and their approach is direct: American? British? Where are you staying? Are you married or single? How much do you make? Thus, with the subtlety of an atomic icebreaker, the Greeks get to know you, and you get to know them.

In many villages there seems to always be at least one English-speaking person for whom it is a matter of national pride and honor to welcome you and, perhaps, insist on lending you his only mule to scale a particular mountain, then offer a tasty dinner meal.

This is the typically Greek, deeply moving hospitality, which money cannot buy and for which, of course, no money could be offered in payment.

Worry Beads

Chances are that your host—no doubt, luxuriantly moustached—will greet you as he counts the beads of what appears to be amber rosaries.

They are komboloia or "worry beads," a legacy from the Turks, and Greeks click them on land, on the sea, in the air to ward off that insupportable silence that threatens to reign whenever conversation lags. Shepherds do it, cops do it, merchants in their shops do it.

More aesthetic than thumb-twiddling, less expensive than smoking, this Queeg-like obsession indicates a tactile sensuousness, characteristic of a people who have produced some of the Western world’s greatest sculpture.

Siestas

When does Greece slow down? In Athens, it seems never. But head out to the countryside villages, especially in the summer, and you can find another tradition, the siesta—the only time Greeks stop talking and really sleep, it seems.

Usually after lunch and until 4–5 pm, barmen drowse over their bars, waiters fall asleep in chairs, and all good Greeks drift off into slumber wherever they are, like the enchanted courtiers of Sleeping Beauty. Then, with a yawn, a sip of coffee, and a large glass of ice water, Greece goes back to the business of the day.

Folk Music and Dance

It’s a rare traveler to Greece who does not encounter Greek song and folk dancing, sure to be vigorous, colorful, spontaneous, and authentic. The dances are often rooted in history or religion, or both: the zeimbekiko, a man’s solo dance, is performed with a pantherlike grace and an air of mystical awe, the dancer, with eyes riveted to the floor, repeatedly bending down to run his hand piously across the ground. The music, played by bouzoukis, large mandolins, is weighted with melancholy.

The most popular, however, are the kalamatianos and tsamikos. The former is performed in a circle, the leader waving a handkerchief, swirling and lunging acrobatically. The latter, more martial in spirit, represents men going to battle, all to the sound of cries of opa!

Remember, plate-smashing is now verboten. Today, a more loving tribute is paid—many places have flower vendors, whose blooms are purchased to be thrown upon the dancers as they perform.

Updated: 2014-01-14

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