Greek-American travel blogger Joanna Kalafatis of Goroadtrippin.com explains the deep connection visitors who have been to Greece experience and why the country and its guests have built such a strong bond.
I should give fair warning that this is going to be less of a ‘travel guide’ post and more of an elaborate love letter to the country I spent the first few years of my life in – Greece. I shall write a guide post soon, but I am feeling quite nostalgic at the moment, especially with only three months left to go before I find myself back in my childhood home right on the Aegean Sea.
Greece is a stunningly beautiful country, naturally blessed with blue waters, endless miles of beaches, and picturesque ruins scattered all over the hilly terrain. No matter where in the country you find yourself, every sunset view is breathtaking. This is what attracts millions of tourists to Athens and the Greek islands every year, whether they are history buffs touring 3,000 year old ruins, college students looking for nightlife that keeps going well past dawn, or British/German/Scandinavian citizens hoping to finally experience this mythical ‘summer’ they have heard so much about.
In recent years, this image of Greece has been replaced by images of protests, upheaval, recession, and economic suffering in international media. And there are definitely many Greek people undergoing financial distress, feeling the effects of crushing austerity measures and fighting to regain the prosperity and comfort they once had. I can only hope this situation will eventually improve.
But I want to talk about what Greece means to me; what the country evokes in anyone lucky enough to step on its shores. Obviously no place is perfect, and in a less forgiving mood I could find many things to complain about in Greece. But I keep going back year after year, because no matter what the problems or issues, the country is a part of me, and I will always cherish what makes it beautiful to me. Here is what comes to mind when I think about Greece.
Greece is Always Welcoming
I’m not talking about the people who stamp your passport at the airport, because God knows they could use some customer relations courses. I’m talking about the country itself, the nature of it.
The environment in other countries, especially in the US, can seem intimidating and foreboding. Jagged mountains that pierce the clouds; stormy, dark-green seas that obscure the ocean bottom; forests that block the sun from ever shining all the way down. In more populated areas, 8-lane streets and mile-long blocks discourage people from congregating, or even using the streets at all. Greece is not like that.
In the summer, the sea is clear and inviting. Even in the winter, the water never seems intimidating or frightening. The waves rarely thunder down; instead they splash against the warm sand softly, drawing you in, comfortably enveloping you as you dive underneath and open your eyes to see the sparkling sand and broken shells down on the ocean floor.
The forests have trails running through them that you can easily walk on, while listening to a symphony of cicadas in the summer heat. The trees provide shade but are not large enough to overwhelm you and block out the sky. The pleasant smell of grass and pinecones and earth is present everywhere. I still remember walking through the woods behind my house as a child, going further and further up the mountain, without a care in the world. Why would it frighten me? There were no dangerous animals to be found here, no chance of suddenly encountering treacherous terrain, nothing to scare me at all. Everything feels familiar and welcoming; the nature here invites you to play.
This same feeling extends to Greece’s many charming towns. They always seem to welcome people with open arms. I can always find a place to rest, a shady spot in which to cool down, a cafe to just sit back in and get lost in daydreams. Narrow alleys run through most rural towns and Greek islands, full of people going about their daily errands, children running through and playing, neighbors meeting in the streets to share the day’s gossip. These areas are devoid of huge highways and grand boulevards; but that is what makes them so appealing, the fact that they seem to be built for people, rather than machines.
In Greece, You Can Never Forget Where You Came From
History is important here. Not just ancient history, though most Greeks are quick to point out that our civilization had flourished at a time when many others had barely gotten their start, and are immensely (sometimes overly) proud of that fact. I think we all secretly believe that if we traced our ancestry back to ancient times, we would find ourselves directly related to Socrates, rather than to some obscure illiterate farmer 300 miles from Athens, which is statistically more likely.
However, what I’m referring to is more current history. There is much more contact between the generations here than in the USA and many other Western countries. Children visit their parents and their grandparents on a frequent basis, and there is scarcely a person of my generation in Greece who cannot recall at least 5 stories relating to World War II and famine, stories passed on to them during a childhood spent listening to grandma and grandpa.
Most Athenians and residents of other major cities in Greece also have a village (χωριὀ) where their family is from, a place they go back to for celebrations and holidays, like Easter. It’s possible their grandparents still live there, or their great aunt, or second cousin, or in any case someone who ties them to this place and hosts them while they stay there. These villages are either rural mainland communities or small island towns, and they are always places reminiscent of simpler times and simpler lives.
Families Are Close and Friends Are Family
I have already talked about how close families are, and how important contact between the generations is considered. But friends often grow to almost be part of the family in Greece. It may take longer to establish a close relationship with someone, but once people truly bond, that friendship is a commitment.
It’s not about getting together for a lunch date once every two weeks, and heading to a club Saturday night, although that’s certainly a part of it. Social life is just as important, if not actually more so, than work life. Coffee is not a rushed half-hour affair between appointments, it is a three-hour event. Slowing down once in a while and taking it easy is mandatory here.
Friends are not just there to catch up with once in a while; they are there to help while away boring days, support during hard times, and share the joy of something great happening. These are friends that will gladly answer a call and come running to help at 3 AM if something is wrong. The communities feel more connected and more tight-knit, sometimes verging on overly involved in each other’s lives, but oh well…you take the bad with the good.
Greece is Beautiful
*Joanna is an actress and writer addicted to travel and road trips. She holds a bachelors in economics from Barnard College of Columbia University. When not in Los Angeles, she can be found exploring another corner of the world and blogging about it. Follow her adventures on her travel blog and facebook.