Greece: About Greece
Any Greek will be able to regale you with thousands of years of Greek history. The history of Greece is varied, complex and one in which Greeks take a huge amount of pride. They have a deep and abiding pride in the contributions that Greece has made to the rest of the world both historically as well as in modern times. At its peak, Greek civilization extended as far as Egypt and to the Hindu Kush mountains in modern day Afghanistan.
It is recommended that any visitor have at least a summary knowledge of Greek history before visiting as it would be a rare visit when history is not mentioned in at least one conversation.
Key historical highlights in more modern times include the Ottoman Empire occupation that lasted for 400 years. Southern Greece was liberated in 1821, but much of Northern Greece was not free until nearly 100 years later. Many villages in Greece celebrate their own liberation day from the Turks. The Turkish occupation and its after effects are an integral part of Greek culture. For example, in Northern Greece there is a form of folk dancing where the dancers look towards the ground with their shoulders bent over, symbolizing the weight of the Turkish occupation upon them.
Greece was part of the Allied Forces in WWII and immediately following it fell into an intense civil war which lasted until 1949. After peace was regained, Greece developed rapidly in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In 1967 a coup d’etat was enacted by the Greek military, overthrowing the government and establishing a military junta which lasted until 1974. They abolished the Greek monarchy in 1973. By 1975 democracy was restored and the country held a referendum to confirm the deposition of King Constantine II. Greece joined the European Union in 1981.
The Greek used today is the modern form of Ancient Greek. Greek is written in the Greek alphabet, which was developed around 1000 BC. The language is an Indo-European language with a documented history of 3,500 years, the longest of any other single language in that language family. Greeks take great pride in the long history of their language and will often tell you how the Greek language has contributed to other languages – either with their words being used directly, or as the root for other languages. Ancient Greek is still used as a liturgical language by the Greek Orthodox Church.
Geography and Climate
The country is located in Southern Europe, bordering the Aegean Sea, Ionian Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea, between Albania and Turkey. The terrain is mostly mountains with ranges extending into the sea as peninsulas or chains of islands.
Hot dry summers are followed by wet winters that range from mild in southern Greece to cold in northern Greece. There is little rainfall in the summer months and this often contributes to wildfires. There is occasional seismic activity and environmental issues such as deforestation and pollution can be serious depending upon the region.
While most people think only of the Greek islands when they imagine Greece, there is much more to the country than the islands. Snow can be seen in many parts of Northern Greece during the winter, and can even extend down to Athens. There are ski areas in the mountains of northern Greece.
Winter in southern Greece can be overcast and cold. But when spring arrives in April it comes with color and fragrances that abound. As Greece has many different kinds of flowering trees, the spring months of April and May are often filled with the fragrance of orange trees which grow even in cities such as Athens. Flowers are everywhere in April and May, but by early June the dry heat has arrived and grass and flowers are maintained only if watered daily.
Foreigners may be confused when Greeks speak of “green islands.” These islands are green only from a distance as the green comes from the olive trees. Summer months are very hot, particularly in southern Greece. Many people in Athens return “home” to family villages or islands in the month of August to escape the temperatures.
Today Greece is a presidential parliamentary republic. Its constitution dates back to 1975. The President is elected by the Parliament and serves the Council of the Republic. The president is the chief of state. The Prime Minister has the real power, as he is the official head of the government and the leader of the majority party of the unicameral Parliament (Greek Chamber of Deputies). Greece joined NATO in 1952 and the European Union in 1981. Independence Day: March 25, 1821
The Greek flag in its current form was adopted in 1822. The colors of the Greek flag are blue and white. Blue represents the sky and the sea while the white represents the purity of the Greek’s struggle for independence. The 13 stripes in the flag stand for the 13 syllables in the Greek phrase “live free or die”. The cross represents the Greek Orthodox religious faith.
Greece has a capitalist economy with a large public sector. Tourism provides 15% of GDP. Immigrants make up nearly one-fifth of the work force, mainly in agricultural and unskilled jobs. The Greek economy grew by nearly 4.0% per year between 2003 and 2006. The Greek Government continues to grapple with spending cuts while reducing the size of the public sector, and reforming labor and pension systems. This is being done while facing often vocal opposition from the country's powerful labor unions and the general public. The best known industry in Greece is tourism. About 12 million tourists a year visit Greece – about the same as the native population. The vast majority of these tourists see only the islands during the summer months, which serves as the driver for the island economies. Other industries include food and tobacco processing, textiles, chemicals, metal products; mining and petroleum.
Agricultural products that are important are: wheat, corn, barley, sugar beets, olives, tomatoes, wine, tobacco, potatoes; beef and dairy products.
Important imports are machinery, transport equipment, fuels and chemicals. Currency: Greece adopted the Euro in 2001.
Cash is still a strong means of conducting business in Greece. Prices may vary with merchants, depending on the type of transaction - cash or credit. When paying with cash, Greeks are more prone to negotiate.
98% of Greeks are members of the Greek Orthodox Church. As a religion, Greek Orthodoxy emphasizes individual choice and does not stress guilt or shame. The church does not teach proselytizing, instead it teaches that those who are right for the religion will be drawn to it.
The religious principals are learned in school. The state supports the Church and priests are considered part of the public sector. When visiting a church or a monastery, women should wear skirts (never pants) and have their arms covered. Women are not allowed behind the altar. Greeks observe Orthodox Easter, but celebrate Christmas on December 25th. Christmas is seen as a religious holiday, and gift giving is done on New Years.
Most Greeks have names that are linked to saints in the Orthodox religion. As such, Greeks typically celebrate a “name day” instead of a birthday. The day which is celebrated is the date assigned to their saint by the Orthodox Church. Someone named Christos for example is named after Christ. The name day for Christ is December 25 and thus someone named Christos would celebrate his nameday on Christmas. Many Greek names have both a male and a female version – in this case the female version is Christina.
Social Structure and Culture
Significant social hierarchy exists in the society and there is a large gap between the rich and the poor. The upper class in Greece is small, extremely wealthy and they hold significant economic and political power. The Greek families who hold the majority of the political and business power in the country are called “the old fireplaces” in Greek and they number about 100. As southern Greece was liberated from the Turks about 100 years before northern Greece most of these influential families are from southern Greece. Greeks place a great value upon personal relationships with those they do business with. Aligning yourself with influential Greek business leaders will help tremendously.
Greeks place value on strong interpersonal relationships. They maintain ties not only with immediate family members but also with a large extended family. Family and friendships carry obligations. When an individual makes a decision, the well-being of the family is taken into account and family honor is an important consideration. While Greeks may live in different parts of the country, they typically share a strong allegiance to their home village, island or region. Vacations and important holidays are often shared with friends and family back in their home town. When traveling abroad, Greeks will look up (and find a warm welcome from) other Greeks from their village, island or region.
Overall, Greeks are people oriented with quality of life being an important consideration. They are wonderful hosts and enjoy a good party. They will often stop to have a coffee with a friend as evidenced by the tremendous number of outside tavernas and coffee shops around the country. Greek society is still very male oriented with a sense machismo still being seen. There are successful women executives, but not as many as in some other countries.
Education is a primary vehicle for advancement, but personal and family connections also play an important role in the social structure. Wealthy Greeks may send their children abroad for education – quite often to the US or to the UK.
Elders are respected in Greece and it is common to find several generations living together. Greeks smoke a lot – by some accounts more than any other country in Europe. Be prepared for smoking in all locations.
Learn a bit of Greek – hello, thank you etc. will go a long way.
Know the basics of Greek history.
Be willing to develop personal relationships with your counterparts.
Understand that it takes time to get things done in Greece and don’t become impatient too soon in the process.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the expansive Greek nature.
Understand that Greeks may not stick to an agenda.
Be willing to socialize in the evenings.