Finding Filotimo in Greece 2017-11-14T12:54:29+00:00

Finding Filotimo in Greece

Iwas recently traveling through Europe and decided to visit Greece. People I met everywhere told me not to go because of the influx of Syrian refugees and the growing financial crisis. They also said it wasn’t safe for a woman to be traveling there alone as many of the refugees were terrorists in disguise. They warned me of not being able to withdraw money from the banks and that the Greek citizens would not take kindly to an American ‘throwing her money around while they were poor and suffering.’

While researching the facts before making a decision, I learned the financial situation was not good for the citizens or the government. My opinion was that an infusion of foreign currency through tourism would help. More people would be working, therefore, paying taxes which would help pay back their country’s debt. Unfortunately, news coverage had kept most travellers away.

After my fact-finding mission regarding the refugee crisis, I decided to trust my own gut. I looked at maps of the areas I would be traveling to. Many tourists choose to travel to Greece’s beautiful isles of Santorini or Mykonos before choosing the mainland where I had planned to go. I was traveling to the Parnassus Mountains northwest of Athens and the towns of Delphi, Itea and Galixidi on the Corinth Gulf, and Meteora and Thermopylae further north. The refugees were moving along the coast, north to northeast into Macedonia.

I decided to fly into Athens and upon arrival, hailed a taxi. The driver was a quiet, serious-looking man called Andreas. I asked him what he thought of Greece’s financial crisis and how it was affecting his family.

‘We are managing. The government has set a limit on how much we can withdraw from our bank accounts. It is not enough to pay our bills, so we cut where we can. My wife and I work but we can no longer pay for daycare for our boy and girl. So my parents come a few days and her parents come the other days.’

‘What about food and fuel?’ I asked. I had read that in the last five years, the government had increased fuel costs to a point where 80% of the citizens stopped buying it, choosing to live without heat or burning wood cut from trees in the forest.

‘We need heat for our small children so this is our priority. We cannot afford to buy the food we need for our family so when my mother goes to the store, she buys something for her and my father and something for my family. My wife’s family does the same. We take care of each other. We manage. We still have much to be thankful for.’

I admired his positive attitude.

‘What about the refugees? Are there many?’

‘Yes. They come from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. Now they come from Syria. But we help them. We feed them. Many of us who can, take them into our homes.’

‘How can you afford to do this?’

‘We are Greek. We take care of everyone. We would never throw them into the sea or stop them from finding a safe place. It could happen to us someday, or to anyone running from war to safety and freedom. We are all human beings.’

I liked Andreas.

The two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Delphi took me through the picturesque Parnassus Mountains. The small resort of Arachova, just eight kilometres from Delphi, reminded me of Vail, Colorado, with its quaint ski chalets but interspersed with Greek-style villas.

Temple of Apollo, Delphi

Temple of Apollo, Delphi

We arrived in Delphi. Its streets were lined with shops carrying Greek jewellery and artefacts, books, antiquities, sculptures and pottery. There were cafes, restaurants and small boutique hotels, most of which overlooked the mountain and the valley below. Olive groves stretched as far as the eye could see.

My hotel room was simple and clean with elegant Greek touches, a wrought iron bedframe, a small writing desk carved with the Greek key symbol or the meander motif which symbolizes infinity and the eternal flow of all things. An opulent bejewelled lampshade covered a floor lamp in the corner. My balcony overlooked the valley below and I could see the coastline in the distance. While in Athens, I had looked online for hotels in Delphi and discovered that I could rent a room for as little as 40€ a night including breakfast. A little research before traveling will reveal that Greece offers inexpensive accommodation with meals included. And the food is generally excellent.

I followed the aromas to a restaurant a few doors from my hotel. I entered and sat near the window. The waiter told me I was looking out over one million olive trees between here and the Corinth coast. This region is the largest producer of olive oil in Greece and after traveling throughout Italy and through some of the Greek islands, it is one of my most-loved olive oil, tasting sweet and its scent like perfume. The food was excellent and inexpensive. I ordered a gyro with French fries, salad greens and tomatoes, onion and tzatziki, plus a beer for just 3,80€.

Note: As I travelled through this region for the next three weeks, waiters in the restaurants and cafes would give me food and/or drink gratis, because they are kind and giving people. They think nothing of it. If you are happy, it makes them smile. Breakfasts are usually included in your hotel cost so something light for lunch and a dinner will cost you under 15€ to 20€ per day.

Back at the hotel, the owner and I chatted about my trip and the conversation led to the current happenings in Greece.

‘It has been very slow. My hotel has thirty-five rooms and we had twenty-eight reservations booked for this month. With more news reported on the refugees, we received eleven cancellations so far this week. The tourists who booked were from Holland, Paris, Germany and America … from everywhere. They do not understand that we are in a location where no one comes unless they want to see the great ruins and enjoy the mountains.’

‘Maybe they’re afraid for their safety,’ I offered.

‘It is very safe here. It is safe in Athens. Most of these refugees are thankful for our help. They do not want to hurt anyone. People need to know this.’

The next morning, I made my way to Apollo’s Temple, also known as the Temple of the Oracle. The mountain air was cool and fresh and the scenery beautiful as the countryside dropped off into a deep gorge on the side of the road. Here, it is believed that Apollo spoke to the Oracle and great leaders from around the world would come to hear his wisdom and guidance through her. It was an incredible feeling to stand on the same ground as those before me—Persian Kings, the Spartans, Socrates and Alexander the Great.

Eventually, I roamed the town and entered a shop filled with museum copy sculptures and artefacts. Since I am a sculptor in my free time, I walked in with my phone out, ready to take photos. Of course the owner, Nikos said, ’Please, come. Take as many as you like.’

After shooting for twenty minutes and lots of small talk, he offered to make me a Greek cafe latte. No one makes it like they do, the froth sitting on top of the coffee, thick and rich. Back in the States, I have tried to recreate it every day without success.

Nikos and I talked about the current situation and how it has affected his business. ’Many tourists have stopped visiting Greece, especially Delphi, and many days, there are no sales. For this reason, it has been difficult. A few years ago, there were twice as many shops in Delphi like mine. Now, half of them have closed down. Some have left their homes here in the mountains for work in other countries. I have had to cancel orders for my inventory for the first time in almost twenty years.’

‘How do you manage?’ I asked.

‘We help each other. We do what we can to support each other and hope for the best.’

‘Do all Greeks help each other?’

‘We Greeks are born with Filotimo. There is no translation for it in English, but let me try and explain. It is a trait and it is who we are. It is how we behave. It is inside us and pushes us to do what we need to do for others before anyone asks for our help. We will give them our food and money. We will give them whatever they need, because this is what we do. It is an honour.’

As Stella Tsolakidou, a writer for the Greek Reporter wrote, ’Filotimo represents a way of life for Greeks. It includes ideas and virtues such as honour, justice, courage, dignity, pride, self-sacrifice, respect, freedom, gratitude and hospitality.’

Over the next few weeks, I watched the locals as they interacted with tourists, strangers and each other and I often smiled at their kindness and generosity. There was a peace and calmness about them, wrapped up in a strong and confident exterior.

One night, Nikos invited me to dinner and picked me up at my hotel. He stopped in front of a store, put the car in park, left it running with the keys in it and came around to open my door.

‘Come, we stop here first.’

‘Won’t someone steal the car?’

‘No, we have honour. We have Filotimo. To steal would be to dishonour the family. It is disrespectful. Greeks here do not break this code.’

Recently, Philhellene German Health Ministry executive, Andreas Deffner, published a book titled Filotimo. In it, he wanted to show how the people of Greece were coping with the current crisis. He attempted to explain the meaning of the word by using this entertaining definition,’…Two or three positive thoughts, a litre of joy of life, 500 grams of hospitality, a whole ripe friendship, ten drops of helpfulness, a little pride, dignity and sense of duty.’

One of our readers, Themis in Athens, had this to say about filotimo: ‘Filotimo’ is a complex word. ‘Filo-filos means friend, ‘timo’ comes from the word ‘timi’ which means honour. So, who has ‘filotimo’ is a friend of honour. He/she respects and helps without wanting anything in return. If he is about to do something that is going to harm or insult or deceive someone, he simply doesn’t do it. You get it? Is an inner flame, an inner code, an inner force that tells you what is wrong and what is right towards other humans. Exactly like Socrates was saying. Thank you from the depths of our heart .’

Yes, that sums up my experience with the Greeks. My next thought was that the Syrian refugees couldn’t have chosen a better place to land on their way to freedom.

After a week, I moved down to Itea, a small town on the Corinth Gulf, 8 kilometres from Delphi. It was breathtaking with its old buildings, the boats, the sunlight on the sea and the soft lapping sound it made against the rocks lining the shore. Cafes dotted the coastline, their tables sitting at the water’s edge covered with blue and white tablecloths moving with the breeze. It reminded me of an old movie I had seen, Shirley Valentine. I could see her sitting at this table on the edge of the sea, a dreamy look on her face. It was a quiet town, an excellent place to write and the sounds of the water washing up onto the rocks lulled me to sleep at night.

Kink Leonidas, Thermopylae

Kink Leonidas, Thermopylae

I decided to travel to Thermopylae and Meteora, two places I was told I had to see before I left. So off we went into the mountains, Demetre and I. Our first stop was Thermopylae. Many of my male friends at home are still slapping themselves for not coming with me.

We arrived at the site where King Leonidas led his 300 Sparta warriors into battle against one million Persians and their King Xerxes in 480 B.C. Of course the numbers are slightly different than what we’ve been led to believe. It is true there were only 300 Spartan warriors but King Leonidas had warriors from other Greek states supporting him. The total was actually close to 7,000. The Persian army was said to be almost 2 million. But those numbers have been reduced down to 100,000 to 300,000. This was still an overwhelming size for the final 300 Spartans. And of course, they lost. The Battle of Thermopylae was one of the greatest battles of ancient times.

A monument and a museum stand a short distance from the pass, which has now widened and eroded over the past 2,000 years. We climbed a hill close by, until we reached King Leonidas’ monument where his remains are buried. Demetre walked over to the bronze plaque as if he was in church, bent down on one knee, kissed his fingers and reverently placed them there as he bowed his head with respect.

It was then that I realized how much these people had been influenced by their Greek history. They held the highest regard for the Spartans and what they represented and also believed that the DNA of the Spartan warriors was in their own blood … in these parts anyway. I saw where their strength came from and their ‘we can survive anything’ attitude.

Back in the car, we trekked on to Meteora located on the Plains of Thessaly in central Greece, only a few hours away. Demetre didn’t speak much English, so our long drive was comical as we shared one conversation after another. We each latched onto one word and it was always a mystery as to where we would end up. Most times, it was off on another subject so far from where we had intended. Then, we would both smile and nod in agreement as if we understood.

In Meteora, the monasteries in the clouds came into view. I was awestruck as they sat high atop the very tall monoliths or sandstone rock pillars. It seemed as if the six before me were suspended in air (actually the word meteora means “heaven above” or “suspended in air”). Demetre, in his broken English, did a good job of telling me that these were the last six remaining and that this area was the largest and most important Greek orthodox complex in the world.

There are many theories as to how the monoliths came about. One theory is that there was possibly a large river estuary that had been covered by the sea for millions of years. Stones and materials from the river water accumulated and formed deltaic deposits, creating the deltaic cones. Then at some point in time, the earth shifted and the sea relented. Eventually, the rocks or monoliths were cut off from the mountains, the earth’s surface and the waters changed drastically over time and the winds and the rain continued to erode the rock formations.

Throughout history, the people found protection in these complexes from raiders and conquerors. Hermits also came to live atop them in solitude; and eventually, Orthodox Christianity rose up and took them over.

Demetre leaving a monastery in Meteora

Demetre leaving a monastery in Meteora

I have never been to a place such as this. Seriously. To see their beauty and their height. I only made it to the top and inside two of them. I sat and wept because of the sacredness of the nave I was sitting in, the smells of the incense and the chanting that surrounded me. My knees became weak—not because of my physical body, but because I was on the other side of the world half way to heaven. Of course, on the journey back down the long staircase, my tears stopped quickly as I turned and looked up to see Demetre—a big Greek man—skipping down the stone steps, arms over his head, a look of glee in his eyes, giggling away.

If you are on a journey to find yourself or to find connection, this hidden corner of Greece is a place where you will find it.

A few days later in Itea, I sat at the water’s edge in a new cafe. I had been in Greece long enough to know that if there were ten cats sitting at the door, this was the restaurant that served the best fish. I asked the waiter, a man in his 80s, to see the menu. Not speaking English, he took me by the hand and walked me across the main street into the main restaurant and further back into the kitchen. He pointed to ten different dishes on the very large, old stove. He pointed to a long table in the middle of the room and said, ‘Menu.’

Soon, olives drizzled in olive oil, fresh, warm, crusty bread and a glass of wine were placed on my table. Then, a large white fish with the fragrance of the sea, arrived and was ceremoniously presented to me by the smiling waiter who was trailed by six cats! It was the tastiest fish I have ever enjoyed and the whole meal costs about 15€.

A little girl came to my table at the same time the waiter arrived with dessert consisting of fresh fruits, sweets and another glass of wine! ‘For you,’ he says with a smile. It was all gratis, of course.

The young girl of five sat for almost an hour trying to teach me Greek as her mother and father watched from another table. Eventually, they came over to join us and we laughed at her frustration with my slow progress and the effervescence and wisdom of this young child.

A local fish dinner

A local fish dinner

Everywhere I went, I met beautiful and kind people—Atha, the woman in my hotel who I became friends with and met for Greek coffee; my friends Nikos, Demetre and Costas; the young girl and her parents; and the elderly man in one of the souvenir shops in town. I had asked him where I could buy a hair dryer. He took my arm in his and we walked the half-mile through town to the store. He even negotiated a better price for me.

Costas, with his big dimples and infectious grin, had such a positive attitude. He believed that life and all people were good and great and that we would rise above all that was happening. He also believed that the world would become a better place quickly and had me convinced of this by the time I left. Nikos, also a kind and giving person, gave me every sculpture and bas-relief I touched or admired in his shop. He happily wrapped them carefully and placed them in a box to be shipped to my home as a thank-you gift for my friendship.

One night, Nikos and Costas took me to dinner up in the mountain to a little village called Χρυσό, Chiso, which means ‘gold.’ They had chosen this village and this taverna—the only restaurant in the entire town, because it had the best lamb in all of Greece … at least this is what they believed. As we sat waiting for our meal, they showed me the secret Greek handshake that has been around since the beginning of time, the meandros handshake (which is the same as the Greek Key symbol meaning eternity, unification, power as one).

Greek meandros handshake

Greek meandros handshake

Costas said, ‘Once someone shakes your hand like this’ … he took mine in his … ‘we are bound together in friendship for life.’ Nikos did the same and I knew we three were bound together in eternal friendship.

When the meal came, it was the most incredible lamb I had ever eaten. I was told the reason was that in the Parnassus Mountains, they were fed a diet of olive leaves from the trees. The meat was sweet and especially tender.

The next day, I left for Galixidi, another gulf town 16 kilometres from Itea. I was still trying to wrap my brain around the strange name of this place. Galixidi sounded like a place Spock visited for a holiday on Star Trek. Once an ancient ship-building village, it was now a quiet town where small boats, larger fishing boats, a schooner and a catamaran were docked. Two hundred year-old, Italian-style stone and cement houses sat clustered in the little town with tavernas and cafes along the water. We found one, sat and enjoyed the view as we ate our meal.

I was told the population in this beautiful town was only 1,000 whereas Itea had 4,000 residents. Many tourists and well-to-do families have summer homes both here and in Itea so both are very busy during the high season. It was now October and still warm enough to swim as we watched children bobbing up and down and dunking each other in the sea. The unique thing about this place was that it was surrounded by mountains. The hills came down to the port and the landscape was covered with woods and cypress trees, creating a great place for hiking. The terrain was so diverse, it boggled my mind.

Our fresh fish was delivered to our table, olive oil and sea-salt on its crusty skin. It was accompanied by a large dish filled with the best olives in the world drenched in oil.

After five days of exploring the town, the churches and the hiking trails, and writing for hours over coffee, it was time to leave this breathtaking place for the U.S. Costas, Nikos and Demetre were arguing with each other in their loud, Greek way, over who would drive me down the mountain. The airport was three hours away. Costas won the argument so off we went. Once we arrived, I offered him 50€. The look on his face was one of horror. He told me that in Greece, it was an insult to offer money to anyone who had helped you.

‘We do it because we want to, from our hearts. I know you and I know you have a good heart so thank you, but I cannot take this.’

‘Please, I know you need it for your family.’ (He had been raising three children, not his own, because that is what they do). ‘I know how difficult it is for all of you right now.’ I pleaded with him, my hand outstretched, still holding the money.

He shook his head, backed away from me and wept, so of course I cried, too. He lifted my bags out of his car and admired my carry-on bag, a small, inexpensive canvas bag. I offered it to him as a gift and started to unpack it. He stopped me, tears filling his eyes again. This is why I describe Greek men as being strong on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside.

During my month-long stay, I learned just how strong the Greek people truly are. They have big hearts covered with lots of pride. They will give you their last dollar, their last meal, their time, their assistance and their smile. They will take you into their homes to meet their families. They will call you for coffee when they know only four or five words in English and pick you up at your hotel, take you to a new ruin or archaeological site that only the locals know and they will gladly give you their undying friendship and love you for life. You will remain a member of their families long after you have departed.

‘Greeks are passionate, if nothing else, and this passion continues to drive society forward despite the current economic turmoil. Life is lived to the fullest, even at the most difficult of times, and herein lies the secret of how a country, seemingly riddled with challenges, is full of people who remain so in love with life.’

– Quote taken from www.LonelyPlanet.com

Visit Greece on holiday and discover Filotimo for yourself. You will come back revitalized and with a different perspective on life.

Θα επανέλθω και πάλι!  I will be back!

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