Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Articles about Greece
Within and Without

So why do I bump into people? I don’t mean that I keep meeting people that I know, in fact on the contrary I keep colliding with strangers, or they stagger into me. The vast majority of these unwanted, and unwarranted, encounters occur on Greek pavements. The pavement, as I have described elsewhere, is a shared forum that offers scant passage to the pedestrian, however there is an aspect of pavement-culture that has gone, as far as I am aware, unremarked and unrecorded.

Let me explain. You can be walking along, quietly and sensibly without changing your speed or direction, when one or two people emerge from a doorway or shop and without looking, let alone pausing, cut straight across you. No sense of priority of passage is recognised, nor is any thought given to the effect their peremptory progress might have upon the unwary other users of the same space. There is just a decisive, unthinking, and unheeding emergence.

Then there is the ‘greeting group’. This phenomenon involves a minimum of two people, and no recorded maximum. Let us assume that two couples are approaching each other along the pavement from opposite directions. They know each other and are pleased to meet again (be that since yesterday or last year). Oblivious to other passers-by they stop bang slap in the middle of the thoroughfare and go through the hugging, kissing, handshaking and vociferous welcoming routine – which can last for several minutes. Not one thought is given by any of those involved to the fact that they have effectively blocked the pavement thereby forcing old ladies, the physically challenged, and stray dogs to take avoiding action by diverting to the road.

This, as I am so often wont to say, does not happen in England. Yes, of course there is the occasional mix-up where people have to sharply avoid each other, but when this occurs the apologies are profuse. Indeed it is part of our strange etiquette that the person who is wronged (bumped into) should apologise, just as much as the perpetrator. It is a moot point as to whether such behaviour of the English is politeness or hypocrisy.

Much the same situation occurs when driving. I actually think that Greek drivers are amongst the best in the world in that their reactions are fantastic and, on the whole, their judgement of speed and position is faultless. That is not to say that the experience of being driven through a large town, especially Athens, by a ‘good’ Greek driver is not a terrifying ordeal. ‘Good’ in the context that I have used it does not mean cautious, safe, or even legal. If you have the courage to keep your eyes open you will see, however, that cars cutting in front of others, changing lanes and emerging from side streets, do so without a wave of invitation from the inconvenienced, and certainly without a hand raised in grateful acknowledgement by the interloper. Again such behaviour is totally unacceptable in England. Perhaps we are not so tolerant of cars cutting in front of us, and rely more upon an open-handed gesture or flash of the lights before we carry out such a manoeuvre., however it is, without doubt, an essential part of such a scenario that the ‘kindness’ is rewarded with a wave of thanks.

So is this all just a matter of politeness? I am not sure. I am however certain that it exemplifies a deep cultural divide between our two countries. It depicts the difference between a society where civic responsibility is of prime importance, as opposed to a regime where what really matters is the close interaction between friends and family. In England we have had many centuries of relatively stable government during which we have learned that it is to the advantage of the individual to co-operate with systems and strangers. By so doing everyone within a society is advantaged. Such responsibility extends beyond ‘civilised’ behaviour to other civic responsibilities such as the payment of taxes and the maintenance of the ‘shared environment’.

The cultural heritage of Greece is very different. During the centuries of Ottoman rule it was essential to survival that the family/village unit protected its members against the State. The payment of tax, be that upon produce or upon land, was to be avoided by all means possible – and that of course included bribing those responsible for the collection of such. The same morality (if it can be so considered) extended to all aspects of life. It was necessary to duck, dive, weave, and bribe your way through life in order to survive within the system.

This survival technique has extended into the short history of the modern Greek state. We northern Europeans may be a trifle reluctant to pay our taxes but we do so, and by and large, can be trusted to fill in our tax returns in an honest manner. In Greece there is the need for an enormous labyrinthine bureaucracy to achieve something like the same end. It would be ludicrous to ‘trust’ a Greek taxpayer to do anything other than ensure that by fair means or more questionable practices nothing but the most miniscule part of his income falls into the hands of the State.

Consider also the home and its demesne. Both the Greek and the English care for the area within their ‘garden wall’ providing, as best they can, a pleasing aspect for themselves and their family. The Englishman however will most likely extend this to the immediate periphery of his ‘plot’, mowing the grass verge in front of his house and removing any rubbish, tree branches and other unsightly elements therefrom. Furthermore he may well also take an interest in his village, or immediate neighbourhood, lobbying the parish or town council on environmental matters and perhaps even joining a local conservation group that carries out regular ‘litter sweeps’ and/or tree planting.

Not so the Greek. As he steps, or more likely drives, across his threshold – from the land that he owns to the ‘outside world’ all concept of care and nurture deserts him. The road may be potholed, there will most likely be litter and stray bits of vegetation, the area will at best look a little scruffy, at worst it will be like a bomb-site. But he does not care; it is most certainly not his responsibility.

This differing cultural heritage is the reason for such diverse behaviour. To the Greek everything ‘within’ his physical and emotional boundaries are his to protect and foster. This includes house, his garden, his car – and more importantly his immediate family, his friends, and his neighbours. Beyond this is ‘outside’ and is certainly to be disregarded, possibly treated as hostile. Centuries of experience have proven that ‘bad things’ come from outside the immediate neighbourhood, from outside the close-knit community.

On the contrary the Englishman has a poorly developed realisation of ‘within’ and ‘without’. Certainly there is a vague notion of ‘them’ – this being the concept of some distant and uninterested authority, but the corresponding ‘us’ is less encompasssing and protective than the Greek’s ‘within’.

These are different cultures. Neither is ‘correct’ although each will be the butt of the other’s jokes and possibly even distain. That which is politeness to the one is insincerity to the other, and that which is protective to the other is insular to the one. How sad it would be if there was homogeneity, for with the adoption of such dies the characteristic of nations.


Back to ' Greek Articles Menu'
Distant Fells
Inspiration from this glorious world.