I’m in Greece this week, my sixth visit since January 2010. People ask if I am considering coming back to live here permanently. A fair chunk of my adult life so far was spent here, after all, so it’s very familiar. There is much that is stressful about living in Athens: the pollution, the oppressive summer heat, the omnipresent racket, the petty-minded and obstructive bureaucracy. There is also much to compensate: people value humour, friendship and family above work, and although Greeks rarely have anything appreciative to say about their countrymen, if you are part of someone’s in-group, they’ll die for you. Nearly everyone I know here is generous, quick-witted and funny, but then of course I don’t mix with the mean, the dull and the literal in England either. In my job at least, I was free for fifteen years of the dreadful treadmill that goes:
Here, there are lots of feasts and celebrations throughout the year for which special food is prepared, and in our teacher training sessions the table is always covered with little boxes of savoury pastries and moreish biscuits that the course participants bring in to share. The Saudi ladies in my classes in England sometimes bring cardamom-scented coffee and dates to pass round on Fridays, and it seems to me highly desirable and civilising to have special days with special foods and little interludes to bring people together to relax and talk. Pity I’m not Jewish – what an event to look forward to every Friday. The British are such miseries in this regard. ‘A yaw the tutor? Aw’ve said to tutors a mil-yon tawms students en’t supposed to eat in classrooms and use the graduate kitchen. Thy kin always go to the cafeteria.’
Yeah, but that en’t the syme, izzit, rye-leigh? The point is what you bring to hand round, the space you create and the people you invite to share it for a while. Fuck the cafeteria.
Ok, so am I considering returning to Hellas for good? No, I’m not, not any more.
Last Saturday I was lugging my suitcase and laptop down onto the tube at Kings Cross and stopped at a ticket barrier to ask the young Afro-Caribbean attendant the best way to Paddington. The ticket barrier kept opening and shutting as I dithered, clamping onto my suitcase, jacket and bag like some moronic, hungry mutt. ‘Come frue, darling,’ the girl said, ‘an’ I’ll show you where to go.’ I was struck by her kindness, and the phrase ‘come frue, darling’ kept sounding in my head all morning like a sweet little peal of bells. People in England are so patient in comparison with the Greeks, I thought. A helpful official in Greece is as rare as piggy-bank poop. He is at work, he is there under sufferance, and you must never forget that. He might be paid to assist you, but I don’t suggest you remind him. A group of French tourists on the bus to Sounion discovered they had boarded the wrong vehicle and the conductor threw a fit, as if he had been personally affronted. A Greek lady remonstrated with him, but was hollered at to mind her own business. The French party alighted at the next stop, with exaggerated bows and waves and mock-cheery cries of ‘merci, monsieur!’ while the conductor huffed and pshawed at them. British, that sort of thing, they’d have set up a committee.
Late one Friday night in March I climbed into a taxi at the Fix metro station in Athens and told the driver to take me to Palio Faliro. The driver let rip with a furious tirade that at first I took to be directed at me. Had I got into his taxi when a colleague was in the queue ahead of him? (Do not do this.) Had I slammed the door too hard? (This is never appreciated.) The diatribe continue as we bombed down the dual carriageway to the coast, but I had failed the number one listening task, ‘identify the topic’ and I had no idea what the bloke was on about. At one point he turned to me with the appeal ‘etsi den einai?’ ‘isn’t that so?’ and I realised I had once again forgotten that in Greece, you persuade your interlocutor of the sincerity of your feelings by acting them out as you relate an anecdote. Some political event had pissed my driver off, and he was hoping to have me share his indignation. He dropped me off by the blessèd, cool, sighing night-time sea and his farewell was affable. As I wandered up the road to the friend’s where I stay, I felt gloomy. Twenty five years after I first came to Greece, I had not managed to decode A WORD of the taxi man’s verbal avalanche. At dinner, the young man of the house shrugged and said the bloke probably had a strong regional accent, don’t worry about it. This may well have been true, but I felt excluded even so. I decided I could take some comfort in the fact that what little I did say during the driver's diatribe did not give him pause to reflect that he was haranguing a foreigner - but then I had to acknowledge that the bugger wasn't listening anyway.
I tend to think of the Greeks as one huge, argumentative family. This may be a simplistic outsider's view, but it seems to me that people here treat everyone, known or stranger, with a mixture of familiarity and contempt that in Britain we reserve only for close relatives. I'm English and it has taken me a long time to accept the fact, because for years I thought English was what I absolutely did not want to be. That was only because I have a strong tendency to fall for the old psychological trick of the grass being greener elsewhere. I sometimes felt in my fifteen years in Greece rather as a nun might feel at a rugby club dinner, and regretted my reluctance to open up to people. Now after a visit, I am increasingly happy to return to the muted tones of England. I don't know my neighbours' names there, hardly ever see any of them anyway, and that's OK with me. I find this polite indifference perfectly amenable, and quite restful after ten cheek-by-jowl days in Athens. I'm not part of this, really, and will always be just an ami de maison who likes to visit.