by Sabrina Bucknole*
Home to a rich culture ingrained with the remnants of a truly fascinating history, Greece is an incredible place to study and live. Despite Covid-19 restrictions disrupting many students’ international education plans, now is a great time to start planning ahead.
To help students understand and integrate into Greeks’ immersive culture, here are a few essential things to learn about local life – from the language through to family values and Greek cuisine.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Greek is the country’s official language, with a whopping 99.5% of people living there using Greek as their primary language. However, English is also widely spoken by almost half (48%) of the population which should make settling in that much easier if you’re a native English speaker. In Greece, English is the international language of business and commerce, and it’s taught at public schools.
You’ll find plenty of English-speaking professionals in pharmacies, doctors’ surgeries and hospitals, especially in the private medical sector. As a student, you’ll need to apply for a EHIC which allows you to access state healthcare in Greece. You should also have travel insurance to cover you throughout course. Students can also opt to take out a global healthcare package to access the country’s private healthcare services, which will help you to cover any out of pocket fees.
“While many people, especially those who are younger, speak English, it is important to learn the basic phrases and use them to open any conversation” advises Patricia Hajifotiou, owner of The Olive Odyssey, and American expat who has lived in Greece for more than 18 years.
Learning the local language will help you to integrate into the culture, feel more at home and communicate with locals much more easily. Even if you’re only studying in Greece for a short while, a language barrier is never fun, so be sure to put in the effort to learn even the simplest of phrases. Not only will this benefit you, the locals are sure to appreciate the effort.
‘Family’ is an integral part of Greek society, and as such, it is not uncommon for large Greek families to live all together in a single household. In fact, even once a child becomes an adult, they tend to remain in the family home – Greek families will often grow their homes by adding floors or extensions so each family member has their own space while living together as a unit. Adding to this, family homes are not typically sold, but rather, passed down from generation to generation.
More often than not, Greek families are very close – and this doesn’t stop with immediate family members either; extended family are also an important part of the family unit. In fact, sometimes more than two generations will live together. This usually happens when an older family member, like a grandparent can no longer care for themselves and has to rely on relatives for support. In Greece, nursing homes and residential care are viewed rather negatively, which is why the elderly usually end up living in the family home.
As a collectivist culture, a person’s family name and background tends to influence perceptions of an individual’s reputation and status. Because of this, there’s an unspoken social pressure for people to present their family in a good light. So don’t be surprised if you hear locals talking about their families in everyday conversation.
If you’re coming from a country with a fast-paced lifestyle, like the US or the UK for example, you’re sure to benefit from a greater social life thanks to Greece’s more relaxed approach to life. For example, “you can still impromptu, call up a friend and meet. I have a group of friends that I usually meet for ‘coffee’ and it turns into a 6 hour visit! When I lived in the US, you would have to make a date weeks in advance for a short coffee, because everyone is so busy”, expresses Patricia.
As well as enjoying a more relaxed way of living, life is very much lived outdoors in Greece. In small towns and villages for example, it’s common to see locals strolling up and down the main street or, if it’s an island, along the shore, especially during the summer months. In both summer and winter, you’ll come to notice busy little cafés and coffee shops, where many locals go to socialise and pass the time.
You may even stumble across a kafenion, which is a male-oriented, traditional Greek café, where retired or middle aged men gather to drink coffee, chat and play cards or backgammon (tavli). While there’s no rules or laws stating that women cannot also enjoy a kafenion, it’s not common.
In Greece, there’s a very strong notion that people live to eat, rather than eat to live. And there’s arguably, no better place to follow this notion than Greece, where the food is fresh and delicious. Authentic Greek cuisine is traditionally made up of fresh local ingredients – staples include Mediterranean vegetables, olive oil, lemon juice, fish, meat and grains.
Seen as more of a social occasion, every meal – whether it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner – is drawn out and enjoyed as a group. When you’re eating out, be sure to try the mezedes (small plates) which are usually served before or with the main dishes, and traditionally accompanied with ouzo (alcoholic beverage) or tsipouro (alcoholic beverage).
For Patricia, “one of the best things is mezedes, or small plates. You can go to a taverna with friends and fill your table with these small plates, break bread and have a very nice slow and tasty meal.” She also advises that students should “order seconds of the plates you love!” Sharing food and wine with friends and/or family is a major part of Greek culture – one of the best parts for food lovers.
Home to delicious cuisine, ancient architecture, and an incredible history, there is so much to learn about Greek culture – and there’s no better way to learn than to experience it first-hand. During your studies, don’t be afraid to dive right in and immerse yourself whenever you can – whether this is through interacting with locals, speaking the language or drinking coffee at a nearby kafenion.
*Sabrina Bucknole is a distinguished outreach specialist. She lives in UK.