Greeks can be gruff. This is my studied opinion after spending a week in the myth-infused homeland of the gods, with its gruesome stories of bickering deities vying for power and favour.
My Airbnb hostess in Athens was the first to freak out at me. “Why are you late? You should have called! I have a baby! I’ve been waiting for you in this apartment for eight hours now!” For the record, I was not eight hours late, my hostess lived a mere 15 minutes away from the apartment, and I communicated with her the instant my plane landed, so now that I think about it, I’m kind of sorrynotsorry…
Then came the old couple on the ferry. The ones who freaked out when I took one of six empty seats around a table, because they had, in absentia, appropriated all six seats for themselves – only to abandon them after I meekly relocated. I sat at the next table and gave them the evil eye for the rest of the trip. Yeah, mister. You’d better get out your worry beads.
Third was the hotel owner at my charming villa in Santorini. “Natasha! What happened with the taxi? You asked me to order you a taxi, and I ordered you a taxi, and he waited for you for 45 minutes! Why didn’t you respond to my messages?”
And fourth was the scuba instructor. But that’s another story.
In two of these instances, I was genuinely in the wrong. I misread my airline ticket in Athens and got into the wrong taxi after a concert in Santorini. In both cases my phone was in flight mode (as a good girl’s phone ought to be when flying and attending concerts), contributing to the miscommunication; and in both cases people were inconvenienced due to my oversights.
But here’s the thing: I apologized. Profusely. Over and over. I offered financial compensation (which was declined with a wave of a hand). And in both situations, the offended parties responded with a dismissive “It’s okay now, but…” and recited my offences again.
This baffled me. I come from a mercy-laden tradition in which repentance is generally followed by forgiveness. But no amount of penitence would grant me absolution from these two individuals who were purportedly in the hospitality industry, and ought therefore to be acquainted with the unpredictabilities of travel and the fallibility of ignorant foreigners. I wasn’t deliberately trying to mess up my own modes of transportation to my desired destinations; I made a mistake. Mistakes happen. And neither of these individuals was able to put themselves in my position and understand (in hindsight) the perfect reasonableness of my errors.
Now, the other two reprimands I received — they were entirely unwarranted. The couple on the ferry was just mean, and the scuba instructor was just an idiot. But you know what? Had they realized their missteps and apologized, I would have forgiven them, instantly. Because that’s how things are supposed to work in this life where we are constantly stepping on one another’s over-inflated toes.
Maybe Greeks come into the world with baggage. Think of how often they’ve been attacked, occupied, and conquered throughout history. Think of how their territory has been tossed back and forth between the Turks and Europeans, between Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Facists, and Communists. Think of how many times their holy sites have been destroyed, rebuilt, and repurposed by whoever happened to have the power and the ammunition in any given century. Think of the resilience these people must have developed, simply to maintain their identity and their dignity through one bombardment after another.
The Greek, I suppose, should have some licence to be gruff. But I wish I had understood this when I showed up in the wrong places at the wrong times, entirely by accident, and felt the wrath of the centuries heaped on my head. I wish I had thought to meet condemnation with grace, both towards myself and the people who had offended me by being so unreasonably offended.
The Greeks aren’t all gruff, by the way. I had some lovely conversations with kind and gentle people who helped me with the transit system, offered me tea and cookies, and admired my Star Wars shirt. A very old lady on a bus applauded my independence and told me to enjoy it because soon I would need to start “making babies.” An Orthodox priest welcomed me into his beautiful church with all the benevolence of the Good Shepherd himself. A courteous gentleman offered me a seat on the ferry when I was banished from the six deceptively empty seats; and my cabinmate on that same ferry was a friendly Cretan who was genuinely interested in my life and my ideas.
And as I wandered through the flea markets in downtown Athens and swam in the thermal lake in the countryside, I continued to have those ecstatic moments when my thoughts tended away from “These people are so mean!” to “What a wonderful place! This is the best day of my life! Why would anyone live anywhere else, when places such as this exist?”
I went cycling, hiking, and swimming; I peered into a volcano. I crept through the working archaeology site of a prehistoric city, and sat in ancient theatres, listening to the ghosts of the long-departed gods and goddesses of the past. I visited Socrates’ prison, the Parthenon, and the Acropolis. I ate a magnificent Greek salad (with capers, don’t you know?). I dove to the bottom of the sea. I bought jewellery and hats from local artisans, I said, “Excuse me” to a donkey, and I tilted my head at the sound of Byzantine church bells playing themes and variations on the hour. I sat in the tower of a castle, sanding the cane for my own pan flute; I tried Apollo’s lyre (“The most democratic of instruments,” according to the maker) and cringed at Marsyas’ bagpipes. I watched the Greek Isles emerge from the mist of the Aegean Sea as the sun came up morning after morning, offering me days of perfect summer weather in the middle of October. I felt the pull of the ancients setting off on their epic quests to unknown lands, and I felt at once the combined hostility and hospitality that comes from being borne of giants in paradise.
So what if I offended a few Titans, and was offended in return? So what if the planes, trains, ferries and taxis did not always conform to my plans, if in the end, they brought me safely through this land of myth and mystery?
The Greek can be gruff, I maintain, but they have my leave. It can’t be easy being bandied about from one jealous deity to the next, century after century, millennium after millennium. What’s one more grudge to throw into the mix? It is good to live like you mean it, and affirm your existence in the face of a gaping future that is entirely unknown. It is good to maintain your sense of self when all of history is threatening to swallow you whole. It is good to just be, and to feel the elemental ire that stirs the world to life. Perhaps I need a little more of the volcanic Greek in me, a little lava in my overly-apologetic soul. Perhaps I need to learn to be a little gruff.