After the yearly summer escape to Greece, I never come back to the States the same way I had arrived. You see after thawing out in Ellas for several weeks you come to absorb some of the characteristic values of the place tipping the hyphen more towards the Greek side than the American. This is good because sometimes it does my American side well to learn from the Greek. This way there is a balance on the see-saw of cultural identity.
Here are some of the lessons an American would do good to learn from the Greek way of life:
Lesson 1: Take Your Social Life Seriously. Greeks make a science out of having a social life. They put as much effort in “having a good time” and having “kefi” as to their jobs or family life. Having fun and being a social being take top priority in the Greek way of doing things. During the month of August you cannot bother anyone with any demands. They take care to schedule their social life with the exactness and meticulousness you’d expect from a portfolio manager picking funds and calculating share cost-to-benefit ratios. Greeks make it a point to talk about the “personables” before getting down to business. It would be mighty impolite to get straight to business—did you get the invoice we faxed over?—before asking about the sales manager’s son or her vacation. The days spent at the beach become 9-to-5 shifts of sun. Fun is a serious pursuit. They schedule the locale for sun bathing and ouzo-chasing like a sommelier sniffs a Cab. They take fun and socializing seriously. In fact, it trumps all other concerns sometimes—including fiscal matters and professional pursuits. “I am not going to let the crisis come in the way of my enjoying my life,” was the statement from an underemployed journalist, a skinny little thing with a red polka dot bikini sipping a Fix on the beach. “No matter how bad things are a Greek will always find a way to go out for a coffee with a friend or an associate after work,” she continued.
Lesson 2: People are more important than moolah. Greeks are social animals; they love friends and family. It goes without saying then that for Greeks people and relationships with people trump objects and money. Money does not become the single most overarching concern in their daily life. Even while under the boot of one of the most grueling economic disasters since WWII, I did not hear that preoccupation and the concern over money that prevails in American dialogues. Count how many times a day money or the economy or other financial topics come up during the day in your life in the US. Trust me—it will be more than what you talk about in Greece. Greeks take financial matters in stride: easy come, easy go. They gain a sense of meaningfulness from the relationships they make and sustain with others over their sense of accomplishment in professional circles. Money is only a means to an end and not an obsession in itself. (All this paradoxically while they tend to be materialistic, and show off the high-end brands). A corollary to this is that family is sacred to Greeks. In the end of your life, the moments that most matter will be the ones that you remember having with the people you love. You will not muse over how many millions you won or lost but on your death bed you will remember and will be remembered for the acts of compassion you carried out on your brethren and your friends. You will not remember that great contract you brought in for the company but you will remember the birthday dinner your family gave you under the palm tree and the applause and good cheer they gave you for just being you. You will remember those you loved, not how much money was in your bank account.
Lesson 3: Don’t rush or be rushed; don’t stress. Stress is antithetical to a Greek person’s modus operandi. “Chalarose paidaki mou,” is the slogan. (“Chill out kid, take it easy,” roughly translated.) Staying away from all things stressful and keeping a state of inner joy becomes a zen-like practice for Greeks. Stress is such an anathema in fact that when I had scheduled a meeting for an interview with a jewelry designer for an article, he sensed my stress and immediately refused to meet. “Let’s reschedule for Monday,” he said, “You need to do this otan chalaroseis (“when you are tranquil, chilled, relaxed”) Greeks are not as preoccupied with squeezing the most out of time, logistics, and time management. They do not obsess about getting all the items on the To-Do list crossed off; they see time as much more fluid. It is something like the sea—an element we swim in but that we can’t quite control, compose, or organize or chunk into blocks like Americans do. While this might make them appear as “unproductive” or even “lazy”, it goes back to the fundamental difference in the way they view life and the concept of time. There is a “right” time a “kalos kairos” for everything; that “time” involves a complex logarithm of variables, sometimes beyond a person’s control. The time to do things so they turn out well cannot be forced; one must just be open to it like the waves of the sea. It is better to let things take their own course naturally rather than forcing their hand, perhaps for the worse. Behind this is the Greek belief in “moira” or destiny. But that needs a book to be explained.
Lesson 4: True happiness comes from being free and independent. There is something about Greece and the Greek way of life that serves up happiness in a way that is completely independent of circumstance. I think it has something to do with freedom, an independence of spirit that penetrates the Greek soil/soul that is so vivifying and rejuvenating. The key to happiness lies in the soul’s ability to be free—free of social constraints, financial burdens, self-inflicted expectations. Greece is a place to just “be” and not “do” and not feel guilty at all about not doing. From ancient of times, the philosophers posited that the human spirit must be allowed to be free—to actualize itself in the manner that best suits it. Greece is one of those places you come to have an epiphany, to scroll back all those layers like onion skins you think are you, to discover your real core. It is a place you come to to get to know the essence of who you are without pretenses or social scripts. It is a place you come to discover the real you, and in this discovery likes your freedom. That freedom, the freedom to be free to know who you are lies the core of the happiness Greece gives you—no strings attached.
These are the lessons the American side of me is reminded when I visit Greece. One of the greatest advantages of being a dual cultural is that you can take the best of both worlds and make it your own.