Story and photos by Allegra Alexander
In the fall semester of my freshman year, I was lucky enough to engage in a transformative experience– studying abroad in Thessaloniki, Greece. I was able to explore the unique culture, learn about the different values, and better understand the local population. Through this experience, I gained more of an independent spirit while also broadening my global perspective. Needless to say, Greek society was very different from my hometown life in New York City, however it surprisingly did bear some similarities to my upbringing in Cortina d’Ampezzo, a small mountain town in Italy. Exploring Greeks’ different customs, values, and habits compared to Americans was immensely eyeopening to me, causing me to reflect on how cultural differences may affect both an individual’s daily life but also an entire population’s thinking.
Their attitude towards tourists was an immediately apparent difference between the two cultures; Greeks are open, extroverted, and hospitable while America’s individualistic culture centers each person largely concerned with their own well-being and success. Greek generosity and friendliness are evident at restaurants, stores, and even on the street when asking for directions. As a culture, they are very accommodating to tourists, eager to make their country feel like home. The word Philotimo is a famous Greek idea with roots signifying friend and honor. The word refers to the pride in self, family, community, and doing the right thing that defines the average Greek (Schafer). In contrast to the United States, a tourist in Greece will always feel a sense of community wherever they go. Personally, the first week of being in Greece taught me to appreciate the community I had built myself and relied on back home, way more than I previously had. While the homesickness kicked in, I realized how lonely and confining life was without my support system and group of friends. From this realization and the value I placed on friendships and family, I encouraged myself to branch out in my program to, see new plaaves, meet new people and overall have varied experiences that expose me to a variety of potential friends.
Greeks enjoy a ‘joie de vivre’, unique to their country. Their flexible, loose relationship with time, reflects their different time awareness compared to Americans. Greeks are unconcerned with strict structure and plans, as they prefer to observe and enjoy the present moment. They have little sense of urgency as they value stress-free, relaxed living. I first noticed the difference in Greek’s relationship with time when people would say “in the morning” or “in the afternoon”, when making plans, rather than specifying an exact time. Greeks don’t place great value on being on time or sticking to a schedule, unlike Americans. The Greek word for time is “chronos”, which refers to measured, ticking, quantitative time– time measured with clocks and by the evolutionary phases of the moon. The Greek term “kairos” describes the ancient concept of time and opportunity (“Living on Greek Time and Loving Every Minute”)– this is qualitative time, where the world seems to stop entirely and you lose track of chronos. During kairos, a state of flow is activated, which can only be experienced, not measured. At first, I was annoyed by the Greek’s nonchalant approach to making plans and sticking to time schedules. I did not enjoy waiting for friends and adapting to their lateness.
Greeks, compared to Americans, place a much greater value on family, as they have great respect for their family, specifically their parents. Greek parents take their role very seriously as they nurture and care for their kids well beyond their 18th birthday. It is common for Greek children to live with their family until they are married, while American children are expected to move out for college and not live with their parents again after graduating. This phenomenon of living with your parents as an adult is common in other European countries too such as Spain and Italy. Often, a Greek individual’s extended family all lives under the same roof, causing grandparents to play a large role in a child’s upbringing. Lastly, having pets in one’s house is much less common in Greece than in the United States. Around fifty years ago, having pets in a Greek household was unheard of, but over time, more people have grown to have pets at home. However, the prevalence of stray cats everywhere has remained unchanged throughout time.
Another difference is the Greeks’ relationship with mealtime as they view it as more of an experience unbound by time. Greek meals are sacred times to spend with friends and family. At restaurants, you are not rushed or expected to leave immediately after finishing your food. Greek meals are known to last multiple hours as people catch up and chat about their lives. Throughout my time in Greece, I learned to savor my mealtimes, as I used them as an opportunity to connect with my peers or catch up with close friends. One particular meal that stands out to me looking back was the dinner that I had with my three closest girl friends, the night before we all left Thessaloniki to come back to the United States. We decided to have dinner together at a restaurant called Kitchen Bar, popular among the study abroad students, together as a last final goodbye to our Greek studyabroad experience. This meal meant a lot to me and provided closure on this specific chapter of my life. It highlighted how, no matter the anxiety and stress that I started the semester with, I was able to make longlasting friendships that should be celebrated.
In addition, the type of food Greeks eat contrasts with American food. There is very little fast food consumed in Greece, as there is a focus on home-cooked meals and eating organic food. The great weather and 300 days of sunshine yearly cause the crops to taste much better than American crops. Lunch used to be the most important meal of the day, but now dinner is considered to be more important as it is the meal in which the whole family is gathered together. In addition, Greece, like many European countries, has many more gelato stores than America. They also love to eat baklavas, custards, fruit, and yogurt as dessert. With dessert, it is customary to drink a “ digestant”, which is often complimentary. This shot is often a liquor called Ouzo, made of wine-making grape remains with an anise flavoring (“Ouzo”). A food custom that surprised me was the prominent role of potatoes in every meal, whether they be roasted, sauteed, mashed, or in the form of fries.
Greek transportation is also very different compared to how people get around in the United States. Mopeds are very common in Greece, while people in New York City often bike, walk or take the subway. This is likely to be an effect of the warm weather, which causes mopeds to be usable all year round. In addition, Greeks have smaller cars and lower gas prices.
Thessaloniki was surprising in the amount of graffiti it had. Coming into my study abroad experience, I expected a clean, historical beach town with classic European architecture, and was shocked to see the abundant graffiti displaying political opinions. I was also amazed by how easy the language barrier was to overcome, once I was here, as it seems almost everyone is fluent in English and they greatly appreciate any effort a foreigner makes in speaking Greek. In contrast, Americans don’t normally speak multiple languages and they expect tourists to learn English rather than accommodating them and speaking their language.
Before coming to Greece, I was unaware of the many important Greek national and School holidays. These are celebrated throughout the year on November 17th (Polytechnic Day), October 28th (Ohi Day) and March 25th (Independence Day). Greeks often attend parades, organize protests and eat specific holiday meals to celebrate. They also celebrate Religious holidays in Greece such as Hristougenna (Christmas) and Pascha (Easter). Although these Christian holidays are celebrated in many countries, Greek people have their own traditions to commemorate the occasions such as decorating Christmas boats as well as trees and eating traditional meals on Easter. In addition, Greeks often fast for religious holidays (starting 40 days before). Even restaurants start to only serve fasting food like octopus and crab cake. Name days, which are related to Saints, are often more celebrated than birthdays, as people are often named after their grandparents, which makes name days a family celebration. I was disappointed that I was not able to experience more of these holidays, since I was traveling during most of them.
In conclusion, I have greatly enjoyed being able to be completely immersed into a very new and different culture compared to the one I have become used to living in New York City in the United States. Overall, I have found this experience to be extremely fulfilling and informative. Living in Greece for three months has changed my attitude on my everyday life, made me more open to making connections with strangers, and has taught me to strive to live more frequently outside of my comfort zone.
The story is featured in VOL 7 ISSUE 2 SPRING 2023 (Print Edition)