Why do I slow travel? Amongst my top reasons is a desire to understand cultures and broaden my sense of humanity. Travel reminds us just how small our native country is on the world stage. It expands our hearts, mind, sense of compassion, spirituality, and waistline by exploring new cuisines. 😄 Today, I want to share 6 positive cultural differences I discovered on the stunning Greek Island of Salamis; a place of incredible beauty and delightful people. An ancient island I shall visit again.
Traveling to Salamina (Salamis), Greece, for a 6-week pet sit over the holiday season was an opportunity to stretch my mind and heart. Here, the cultural differences are delightfully “in-your-face.” I found Greeks to be friendly, patient with my futile attempts to communicate, and passionate about everything. I mean everything!
What do you think of when someone mentions Greece? Crisp white houses with iconic blue accents overlooking crystal clear waters on endless sunny days? Or, perhaps a few scenes from the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” come to mind. Fortunately, Greece is much more than sandy beaches and people shouting, “Opa.”
The differences presented below are my perspective from slow-traveling Salamina and Athens. Comparing the people and culture of one Greek island to another is like saying California and Alabama are the same. So, keep that in mind.
GREEK BUSES, FERRIES, AND TRAINS...OH MY!
Island living means extra steps are required to get around. For me, it meant walking down the hill to catch a bus (1.70€) to the ferry dock, riding the ferry (1.20€) to Piraeus port, then rattling along the metro into Athens (1.40€), taking around 2 hours. All in Greek! As an American, I’m not accustomed to taking multiple forms of transportation. Or rain dampening my desire to venture out. Like traveling in the UK, it was a healthy reminder to “just roll with it.”
I learned to arrive early at the Paloukia ferry terminal, dash across the street for a hot cup of eye-bulging, nerve-jolting coffee, and Philo dough stuffed with some form of “I-don’t-care-’cause-it’s-a-gonna-be-good.” Then, dart back across whizzing traffic to secure my seat on the ferry. Holding on to the wall while taking a wee-piss in the head (toilet) on a ferry during rough seas? Priceless memories.😲 I would people watch commuters sleeping to the rhythmic waves or laden with shopping bags and cheezy Christmas decorations. I just enjoyed being the bright-eyed traveler gazing at the mega-shipping port and surrounding villages.
In Greece, I continued to practice my rule of thumb that if it’s under a 20-minute walk, I skipped public transit and just hoofed it, often carrying 2 bags of groceries plus a full backpack. Embracing a European lifestyle meant I had no challenge maintaining my svelte 123-pound frame. I prefer the sound of 56.6 kilos, but we’ll take 123. How cool is it to weigh less than what your driver’s license says? HA!
THE GREEK PEOPLE
With an extreme language barrier, conversation with locals was as uncommon as Greeks whispering amongst themselves. Still, there were plenty of smiles, especially from men whose only English seemed to be some version of “Come home with me tonight, I will make and keep you a very-happy-women,” presenting me with business cards and phone numbers. Do they talk to all women this way, or was it just that naivete American white-bread look on my face? Here, men are men and say what’s on their minds. So do the women. How refreshing.
Near the home where I stayed was a small neighborhood bakery, which I frequented often. Ok, 😋 all the time. The day I departed to fly back to the states found me holding up 2 fingers and pointing to goodies for the road. Using body language reminiscent of a drunk teenager, I communicated to the young lady that I was leaving. Speaking no English, she smiled, patted her hand over her heart, and got teary-eyed. That meant a lot to me as we expressed friendship without words. Or, maybe she was crying because their profit margin would now plummet with my departure. She included a few surprise treats for my 2-day journey back to the USA.
Greeks are passionate people who love deeply, have an unshakable pride in their heritage, and bitch about the same political corruption we all do. They are strong in their faith, including superstitions (I embraced the Evil Eye and purchased more than I could count as gifts). They love art, food, music, dance, and family. We could learn a lot from them in that respect.
SALAMINA GREECE INFRASTRUCTURE
Greece is a country that was hit hard by the last recession. Paying taxes can be subjective, so public coffers tend to run low. While ancient, it still struggles with infrastructure. Think of neighborhood water mains that were built by Alexander the Great — out of clay. Or public improvements that remain in negotiations longer than it took to create Western Philosophy. During my stay, the street water main broke 4 times, resulting in “surprise” no water. My clever hostess set me up with reserve bottles. Thank you! Repair crews were "Johnny," err, make that “Zeus-on-the-spot” digging, trenching, hap haphazardly slapping pavement on the steep road, and generally displaying an attitude of “good enough for another millennium.”
Trash is another factor to embrace on Salamina. I’m talking about roadsides and sidewalks. Walking along the road to the store, I observed garbage, including toilets and mattresses. Looking at the positive, they provided comfy beds for a pack of stray dogs that roamed like a gang of hormonal teenage boys. There are public trash cans and municipality trash pickup. The home I stayed in had a neighborhood dumpster along the side of the road. Fabulous idea! It sure beats the huge trashcans Americans keep in their garages. Bravo Greece.
In chatting with my hostess about this, she shared an important point: throwing trash out the window or dumping is culturally acceptable and will take a generation to change. I got it and quickly learned to roll with it. The last thing you want to say as a traveler in a foreign country is, “We’d never allow that in America!”
One day, my trusty underwire bra developed an annoying squeak. I felt like ripping the damn thing off and tossing it roadside to slowly and painfully die amongst the debris and stray dogs. Yet, I resisted — close trash call.
Another infrastructure learning curve was throwing toilet paper in the trash can. NEVER flush it down the toilet, lest you plug up one of those Hellenistic-age sewer pipes and cause an embarrassing neighborhood explosion. Little did I know, this policy would prepare me for living 2 ½ years on a boat. HA! Oddly enough, to this day, I still tend to drop the TP in the waste can.
The good news from all this trash talk? I truly believe Greece is another up-and-coming European country to experience now. It’s still, like many European countries, a bit raw, authentic, and not overrun by insensitive tourists.
GREEK KANDYLAKIA SHRINES
Spend any amount of time in Greece and you’ll notice tiny churches along roadsides on a stick! Are they some form of mobile worship? Is there candy inside? Get the pun?!? 😂 Resembling mini-temples, these roadside shrines are placed either as a warning of danger or as a promise and gesture of thankfulness. They are to be respected.
Sometimes, there’s a small candle burning inside or dried herbs, flowers, and tokens. They celebrate miracles of survival, dedicating the shrine to their patron saint. They also mark a monastery or church in the vicinity where it might not be visible from the road. I saw no two alike.
Can you imagine the USA allowing people to place these petite shrines on the median strip or alongside a major road? Or, on a sidewalk, thus inhibiting parked cars? Never! I love the balance of life Greece and Europe, in general, promote. Cultural foundations such as honor, respect, gratitude, and community flourish— all mixed with a sense of “just do it!”
THE GREEK CUISINE
Like every country I explore, in Greece, I dove mouth first into local cuisine. I would savor Lamb Souvlaki and smile/point to “must-sample” loaves of bread and bakery items. When traveling overseas, you learn to grocery shop by pictures. Is that a can of Hominy or Pickled Fish Eyes? One day I purchased what I thought was a delightful red wine, only to realize it was a sweet communion wine. Blah! Like the Aegean Sea, the beer is crisp and light. You must have a big, frothy beer (or 3) with your next Mezze Platter.
Another time, I purchased a ”point-and-smile-waving-cash” fish at the dockside seafood market and carted it back home wrapped in newspaper. Standing at the kitchen counter with knife-in-hand, chatting with my newfound dinner from the deep, I proclaimed, ”I don’t know what you are, but I’m going to cook you and eat you tonight,” — with 4 cats anxiously circling like hungry Cheetahs. The fish was delicious! And the following day, all kitties lapped up Auntie Sandi’s fish broth. They were happier than an old man with a fresh bottle of "Ouzo."
Periodically, small trucks drove around the neighborhood with muffled loudspeakers announcing, Lord knows what. It’s in the VIDEO. A neighbor told me they were selling potatoes. That works. Home delivery, right? It reminded me of the significant difference between trucks selling potatoes and having a Robot Deliver My Tea In England.
I loved buying seasonal produce at the thumb-print-sized shop down the street, but the shrink-wrapped frozen whole octopus was too intimidating, even for this foodie. Maybe next time.
AUNTIE SANDI TRAVEL TIP: Shop at local markets where you’ll save money and can pick up seasonal produce, a new bra, disco-inspired leggings, or a pig’s head. It’s also where you can practice “charades style body language” to purchase, say, pickled beets or real olive oil. And the people-watching — priceless.
FUN FACT: Did you know that because Greece tends to have stony, mountainous terrain, Beef can be tough and not the main staple? So, when this West Coast USA lady needed a Cheeseburger, it was risky. Yet, surprisingly tasty and rewarding with yet, another beer.
During Christmas, locals brought in long metal irons and left them at the local butcher. I discovered they were for the holiday lamb feast (as in the whole lamb) roasted on an outdoor spit. Yum!
When was the last time you saw a pot-bellied man hauling a whole lamb on a metal rod to their car? Or, a plump little granny shouting in “fortissimo” to a young butcher hauling out the precious family feast on his shoulder? What “never could imagine” foodie moments have you experienced? Please share in the comments. 😁
Here, I found bakery items sooo sweet, usually dripping in honey. Dare I say; I threw some away — lest my teeth fall out. Still, my favorite cookie was Melomakarona, which, if you can get past it sounding like something your dermatologist would remove, is worth sampling. Just 'cause I love all 'ya all, I'm including a fabulous recipe for these little wonders of joy from The Mediterranean Dish. Treat everyone this Christmas to something more than boring ol' Sugar Cookies. Let me know how you like them in the comments.
The fresh yogurt was so flavorful I ate it plain. Visualize thick slices of “real” Feta cheese grilled with olives, cracked pepper, and oil. In fact, all the food I devoured in Greece was exceptional and seasonal. Every meal lit up my senses more than getting stuck in an elevator with Richard Gere.
THE GREEK LANGUAGE
In some countries, you can “fudge” the language barrier. You can squint at a street sign and get the gist of what it means. Not in Greece! Here, reading signs becomes a visual exercise in Pictionary. Since the Greek language has its own alphabet, it can be challenging to understand — sort of like Aunt Margaret after too many Gin and Tonics. So, take time to learn the basics. Soon, you’ll be saying “please” like a pro. "σας παρακαλούμε."
AUNTIE SANDI TRAVEL TIP: Show respect by taking time to listen to some Greek language and music to capture the rhythm and cadence. Hell, do that for every country.
Greeks talk fast, and loudly — with passion. One doesn’t know if they’re getting ready for a fistfight or deciding who’s picking up the kids after school. Here, “It’s Greek To Me” has a new meaning. Knowing every culture appreciates your attempts to communicate in the local language shows respect. Something we American’s are not known for abroad.
By now, this little oyster has journeyed enough miles and collected enough passport stamps to know that what you project, give, and offer is returned to you many times. I often hear, and not just Americans, generalize “the people” of a nation or culture based solely on their expectations, attitude, and misinformation. An example, Americans are generalized based on a foreigner's visit to Disneyland, LA, New York, and Miami. We laugh at such conclusions, yet how many of us whip through foreign cities, trample around historic sites, show disrespect to a religion, and return home to impose our own cultural bias?
My takeaway from Salamis is this. The next time you travel anywhere, including domestically, take off your “pre-conceived notion hat” and decide to inquire versus conclude. Seek to learn and understand. Choose to throw yourself out of your cultural box. Then, reap the rewards of stretching your mind, and create new friendships and experiences — like putting toilet paper in the trash can and exclaiming, “Opa!”