Greece teaches cultural differences

This monumental entrance to the Acropolis was constructed during the Classical period (450-330 B.C.). Climbing up to the Acropolis one passes through Propylaia which means elaborate entrance in Greek. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
This monumental entrance to the Acropolis was constructed during the Classical period (450-330 B.C.). Climbing up to the Acropolis one passes through Propylaia which means elaborate entrance in Greek. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian

story by Jennifer Parsons
photography by Veero Der-Karabetian

Within 30 minutes of arrival at Athens airport, I was given my first taste of Greek culture as two men across the room, presumably a father and brother, rushed to embrace and kiss each cheek of their relative. There was no hesitation, nor were emotions held back. It was unlike American culture, where a handshake or a one-arm hug are most commonly seen between men. And so began the experience of studying abroad in Greece.

Priming myself for this trip, I went over a list of things to bring at least 15 times. I had all the necessities: an electrical adapter, a passport, traveler’s checks and an AT&T calling card for those really homesick days.

Kathy Taylor, from Fresno State University, and Sarah Donovan, from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania wait their turn to use a pay phone to call their parents and tell them they made it to Greece OK. Although they had some trouble using their calling cards, there were some local residents who helped them with the language barriers to complete their calls. They are standing next to a kiosk, booths that are on street corners where customers can buy anything ranging from batteries to alcohol. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
Kathy Taylor, from Fresno State University, and Sarah Donovan, from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania wait their turn to use a pay phone to call their parents and tell them they made it to Greece OK. Although they had some trouble using their calling cards, there were some local residents who helped them with the language barriers to complete their calls. They are standing next to a kiosk, booths that are on street corners where customers can buy anything ranging from batteries to alcohol. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian

Weeks later, having settled in this foreign land, the nagging suspicion that I had forgotten a major necessity continued, but I just could not pin point what it was. Then I figured it out. It was not something I could fold up and put in my suitcase. Nor could my mom Federal Express it to me. It was not even a single item. It is an explanation, some sort of insight into Greek culture. How does one prepare to be immersed into an entire different attitude and customs?

Prior to leaving the United States, I had spent numerous hours in Borders. I thought I had read my fair share about Greece. I knew that I needed to become better acquainted with olives, be prepared for cold weather (maybe even snow) and that I could not leave Greece without seeing the Acropolis. I had even bought a handy dandy Greek phrase book. But no book could have given the knowledge I have picked up in the little amount of time spent here.

For one, the incident with the Greek men in the airport is no longer unusual. On a frequent basis, Greeks (men with men, men with women, women with women) are seen kissing as a form of greeting or walking hand in hand. Close relationships are evident through physical contact.

A few days after our arrival in Athens, Lisa Anderson, another Brethren Colleges Abroad (BCA) student from Messiah College in Pennsylvania, came face to face with a cultural difference. While talking on a pay phone on the corner of a busy street, a Greek woman, waiting to use the phone, stood within inches of Anderson. In the United States, it would be described as “breathing down someone’s neck.” Later, retelling the story, Anderson ranted and raved about being “crowded” by this woman and was quite irritated at the lack of personal space. At the time, it was not understood that personal space to Greeks is minimal if existent at all.

As both a means of fulfilling a humanities requirement and providing an open forum for discussion to better adjust to the culture shock some may feel, BCA students are urged to take the Greek Culture course, which is taught by Gordon Schofield, professor of English. During these class periods, political, historical, religious and cultural differences are discussed at great length. In one class session, Schofield attempted to shed light on the subject of personal space.

“Americans value being alone to a great extent. Greeks are people who function in interaction. In Greek there is no word for privacy. Lonely and alone are the same word.”

Wendy Colindres, a junior psychology major from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., tells of a similar experience.

 The ULV Athens main building. This building is called the Kossis, and contains the University's classrooms and the cafeteria. Tuition for studying abroad is the equivalent to ULV tuition. Students are even given an allowance of food money, so, the only extra expenses are traveling desire. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
The ULV Athens main building. This building is called the Kossis, and contains the University’s classrooms and the cafeteria. Tuition for studying abroad is the equivalent to ULV tuition. Students are even given an allowance of food money, so, the only extra expenses are traveling desire. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian

“The first time I went downtown to Athens there was an issue of personal space. I was on the corner about to cross the street and there was this man who wanted to pass. He touched my back, but it was a polite gesture. He wasn’t pushing me; he just touched me, rather than saying, ‘Excuse me.’

“People seem to be straightforward. The buffer zone doesn’t exist. They come close to you. Men to men, women to women. They touch you or they come close to your face and people don’t see it as violating,” added Colindres.

The daily schedule of Greeks differs tremendously. Shops open up around 8 or 9 in the morning. and close for a few hours around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. There is no set time, it is left up to the shop owner’s mood as to what the hours of that day will be.

“Greeks are expressive. If you go to a job and you are in a bad mood, it’s OK to be in a bad mood. If you feel like helping, you’ll help, if you don’t, you don’t. There is a greater freedom of expressiveness,” explained Schofield.

At 3 p.m. or so, most Greeks go home to have large “dinners” with their families and afterwards, quite often, take an hour “siesta,” or nap. This part of Greek culture was easily adapted to and enjoyed by the BCA students.

After the siesta, businesses usually reopen from 5-8:30 in the evening depending on the day of the week. Shop hours are worked around the social and family life, where as in the States, it is not so. Sundays are a day of relaxation in Greek life. Other than church and restaurants, no businesses, including grocery stores, are open.

“Greeks are life and then work. Americans are work is life. Greeks enjoy life, enjoy family, enjoy culture,” said Alex Nuñez, junior international business and economics major from EMU.

 The train leading to downtown Athens. The trains are simple, there is one line with two trains, one going and one coming. Kifissia, the home of the ULV campus, is at one end of the line and the Port of Pireas is at the other. It is about an hour ride from one end to the other. While on the train people do not talk to each other, and eye contact is almost forbidden. However, once in a while a beggar will come through the compartments of the train singing or selling something. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
The train leading to downtown Athens. The trains are simple, there is one line with two trains, one going and one coming. Kifissia, the home of the ULV campus, is at one end of the line and the Port of Pireas is at the other. It is about an hour ride from one end to the other. While on the train people do not talk to each other, and eye contact is almost forbidden. However, once in a while a beggar will come through the compartments of the train singing or selling something. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian

Colindres said, “They have a close knit with their family. It’s a collectiveness community indeed. They appreciate enjoyment in life more than having power or money. They work less hours. Their evenings are to socialize and spend time with their families. Americans work 8 to 5 and in the evening are too tired. That’s probably why Americans are so stressed. I admire that about [Greek] culture.”

Notice, businesses do not open at 9 a.m., rather around 9 a.m. This is because punctuality is not a Greek characteristic. Greeks do not intend to be on time. They give at least 15 minutes leeway. My first day of classes proved this to be true. I showed up five minutes prior to the beginning of class and saw not one other classmate or the teacher until a few minutes after the set class time. Lack of concern for punctuality and less emphasis on other American values were hard concepts for us to swallow.

Schofield tried explaining one of these concepts during a lecture. “Efficiency is an American value. Greeks are not task oriented as much as we are.”

Probably the most obvious difference between the two cultures is the lack of regard for laws, regulations and “order.” It is not Greek to wait in line. If there is a sign that says no parking on a certain street, it is not Greek to abide.

“They don’t believe in systems. Greeks feel the systems are there to get around, not to honor,” said Schofield.

I remember being in line inside of a McDonald’s restroom a few weeks ago and when the stall opened up an woman behind me headed straight for it. Luckily, another woman, who must have felt sorry for me and could tell I was a foreigner with no concept of pushing and shoving my way to the front, started yelling at the lady that had “cut” in front of me. I realize now that the lady that stuck up for me is not always going to be around and I must do it the Greek way or I will be waiting in my fantasy line forever.

 Walking up an alley to the Greek Parliament building. The District of Monastrion is known for its flea markets which occur everyday and one is expected to bargain. In fact it is very uncommon to pay full price for merchandise. Many businesses in Athens do not open exactly on time as they do in the United States. Grecians are known to have a lack of concern for punctuality, particularly in prioritizing business above family. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
Walking up an alley to the Greek Parliament building. The District of Monastrion is known for its flea markets which occur everyday and one is expected to bargain. In fact it is very uncommon to pay full price for merchandise. Many businesses in Athens do not open exactly on time as they do in the United States. Grecians are known to have a lack of concern for punctuality, particularly in prioritizing business above family. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian

This example also brings up the idea of fairness. Being fair is not a virtue in Greece. Cleverness is a much more valued characteristic. Greeks do not go by the books in regard to laws, job opportunities and equality.

For example, if a Greek becomes entangled with the law, but he has some sort of a connection with that city’s sheriff (i.e. a friend of the family), he will most likely get off easy. The same goes for a Greek looking for a job. It is all about relationships and connections.

“Money doesn’t buy anything, but relationships can do it,” said Schofield.

This is apparently true for other cultures as well. During our spring break, a large group of BCA students, including myself spent six days in Egypt. A few friends and I met some Egyptians who decided to drive us around town and show us the night life. Little to our knowledge, it is illegal in Egypt for Egyptians without tour guide licenses to be seen with tourists. The men we were with were asked to step into a police car, where they discussed the situation with officers for at least a half an hour. Because one of the men had an uncle who knew the police, they were let go and the entire matter was forgotten by the police. The same sort of situations would apply in Greece, making it difficult for BCA students to ever talk their way out of any situation. Maybe that is why staying out of legal trouble is emphasized prior to leaving the United States. It is highly improbable any of the BCA students have relatives or friends working for the system.

With the recent problems in Kosovo, a whole new aspect of current Greek life has been thrown into the picture.

A week into the semester, the entire University of La Verne, Athens, student body was sent home on account of a bomb threat. We were later told that all American institutions were being threatened by outraged Greeks upset about NATO’s involvement in Kosovo. Since the initial threat, the school has been closed three more times, sometimes for only hours, due to other threats, although it has not been determined who is making the threats and why.

 Becky Peifer leaning against a graffiti covered wall while eating cashew nuts bought from a vendor. In Greece, graffiti is everywhere. Even in the rich suburb areas of Athens no effort is made to clean it up; it's just accepted as a part of the living environment. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
Becky Peifer leaning against a graffiti covered wall while eating cashew nuts bought from a vendor. In Greece, graffiti is everywhere. Even in the rich suburb areas of Athens no effort is made to clean it up; it’s just accepted as a part of the living environment. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian

Along with most of the other BCA students, I was a little alarmed at the situation, but I have come to realize that other students and professors see it as a hassle, rather than a threat. Apparently, bomb threats happen quite often, and luckily, have yet to have been followed through.

Some BCA students notice less significant cultural dissimilarities. Nick Gray, a junior elementary education major from Juniata College in Pennsylvania notes that many Greeks carry around and constantly knead worry beads.

“Everyone has one [string of worry beads]. If I listen when I’m walking to class everyone is crushing them. It’s awesome,” said Gray.

Through engaging in the Greek culture, many students have noticed more about their own culture.

“I’m noticing now that even though Hispanics live in America, many still haven’t learned the language, but people here know English and it isn’t even vital or the first language,” said Colindres.

Kelly Cragle, a junior marketing major from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, said, “I’m afraid that I’ll forget some of the things I’m learning here like how to have a new perspective of the world. I’m afraid I’ll go back to an ethnocentric mentality.”

Students studying abroad tend to take one of two viewpoints on the cultural differences. First, is the notion that their cultural is the “right” culture and that this new culture is absurd. The other type of students feel that this new culture they are being exposed to is “better” than their own culture. Neither is correct. Schofield continuously reminds the students to understand that no culture is better than any other and that each is relevant to the people living within that culture.

 The Brethren Colleges Abroad group takes time out of studying and traveling in order to try and learn more about each other by playing typical games such as Truth or Dare to break the ice. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
The Brethren Colleges Abroad group takes time out of studying and traveling in order to try and learn more about each other by playing typical games such as Truth or Dare to break the ice. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian

Aphrodite Vavouyios, director of BCA for the past nine years, also aids in making the cultural adaptation more understandable for students.

“I feel students need someone like me because I have Greek mentality, but I have lived in the States and I understand what students’ needs are, expectations are and what we can offer in Greece. Also I am a mother so I understand more, also because I have lived in the States as a foreigner, so I know the problems,” said Vavouyios.

The adjustment process for the BCA students is going smoothly. Initial reaction to cultural differences vary from shock to bafflement to awe depending on the situations. Mostly, though, the culture is accepted wholeheartedly.

“I have adjusted fine. I think it has a lot to do with my background. Latinos and Greeks have a lot in common. The closeness, they’re loud and they like to have a good time. I imagine people being in the country my family is from and I know that it wouldn’t make sense to others,” said Nuñez.

“I had no expectations. It’s really rare when I get surprised. You shouldn’t put people in a box and then be let down. You can’t put a label on something you have no idea about.”

 Resting on rocks near the entrance of the citadel built and occupied by the Mycenaeians. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
Resting on rocks near the entrance of the citadel built and occupied by the Mycenaeians. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
 Aphrodite Vavouyios, BCA director, talks to the group in front of a Greek Christian Orthodox Church in downtown Monastirion, a shopping district in Athens. Christian Orthodox is the dominant religion of Greece. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
Aphrodite Vavouyios, BCA director, talks to the group in front of a Greek Christian Orthodox Church in downtown Monastirion, a shopping district in Athens. Christian Orthodox is the dominant religion of Greece. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
 The BCA group travels through the Acropolis where Plato and Aristotle once gathered to talk. Acropolis means high city, and inside the Acropolis is the Parthenon which is the main structure and was used as a fortress. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
The BCA group travels through the Acropolis where Plato and Aristotle once gathered to talk. Acropolis means high city, and inside the Acropolis is the Parthenon which is the main structure and was used as a fortress. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
 A meat market in Pireas where patrons can find anything from fresh cut lamb and chicken, to pig's head, feet, ears and tongue. Going to the meat market is an everyday task, because most Greeks like to buy their meat and poultry fresh for each day's food preparation. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
A meat market in Pireas where patrons can find anything from fresh cut lamb and chicken, to pig’s head, feet, ears and tongue. Going to the meat market is an everyday task, because most Greeks like to buy their meat and poultry fresh for each day’s food preparation. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
BCA students take a break in front of the entranceway of a mass graveyard while Aphrodite Vavouyios gives insight on how they were built. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
BCA students take a break in front of the entranceway of a mass graveyard while Aphrodite Vavouyios gives insight on how they were built. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
 BCA students looking out over a view of the Acropolis. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
BCA students looking out over a view of the Acropolis. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
 A guard stands in front of the parliament building. The guards stand at attention, dressed in ceremonial garments, without moving for long periods of time. Every once in a while they get to exercise their muscles by marching around in a ceremonious manner, lifting their legs slowly and tapping their heels on the ground. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
A guard stands in front of the parliament building. The guards stand at attention, dressed in ceremonial garments, without moving for long periods of time. Every once in a while they get to exercise their muscles by marching around in a ceremonious manner, lifting their legs slowly and tapping their heels on the ground. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
 Chris Kapiloff, Lisa Anderson, Tak Hayakama and Sarah Donovan view the Citadel from a defensive wall. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian
Chris Kapiloff, Lisa Anderson, Tak Hayakama and Sarah Donovan view the Citadel from a defensive wall. / photo by Veero Der-Karabetian

Latest Stories

Related articles

LV faces Athens suits

Though the University of La Verne shuttered its Athens, Greece, campus in 2004, that chapter of the University’s life has not ended, as officials here are finding themselves embroiled in legal struggles stemming from the way in which the Athens campus was closed.

Expand your horizons by studying abroad

The University of La Verne offers students a chance to break from the norm and study abroad.

Students cross sea to attend ULV

The fall semester has started, and the exchange student program welcomed new foreign students from four different countries to the University of La Verne.

Letter to the Editor

I read with interest your article “Effects of Athens closure still felt” in the Campus Times (Nov. 18, 2005) and found myself freshly disappointed in the ongoing position of the ULV administration.