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12 Things Athenians Never Say

by Omaira Gill Aug 14, 2015

1. I had to go deal with the public sector today… what a pleasant experience!

There isn’t enough space in all the newspapers in the world to document how hellish dealing with Greek public sector employees is. Homer’s Odyssey probably comes close.

Here’s one small example of Greek public sector fun and games. Several years ago, while trying to get together the paperwork for our wedding, my husband visited a public office to get a few official copies of some of our papers made. The woman at the desk stared intently at her monitor, darted her mouse around furiously, and insisted she was busy and that he would have to wait.

It was then that my husband noticed something odd — there were no cables coming in or out of the monitor. To avoid actually doing any work, the woman was intently staring at a computer screen that wasn’t even plugged in. If you can manage to go to a public service office, like the tax office, be there all day from 8am to 2pm when it shuts, and get your job done in one go, people will be amazed and asked you how you did that.

When faced with this Olympic-sized incompetence, the daily grind of rolling a rock up a hill and having your liver eaten by an eagle seems like a breeze.

2. I’m just going to walk to the store.

Our local convenience store is a 5-minute walk from my flat. Everyone drives to it.

3. Opa! Let’s go smash some plates!

Plate smashing died out in the ‘80s in Athens. Now it’s expensive trays of carnations that are thrown in beach-front bouzoukia nightclubs instead. Athenians used to love going to these clubs until the crisis put a stop to that. If you can still afford to go, take a strong stomach for alcohol and lots of cash.

4. Look at this beautiful August afternoon! The perfect day for a trip to the Acropolis.

On my first summer in Greece, I decided on holiday to spend a couple of hours strolling some ancient ruins. My husband warned me against this, but I was adamant that I would be fine. It was just a bit of sun after all.

One dose of heatstroke later, I’d learnt my lesson.

I have now joined the ranks of Athenians who consider the beach the only reasonable place to be caught outdoors between 11-3 at the peak of summer.

Athenians think tourists are crazy for descending on the city’s sites in August, when the sun is unbearable, and watch them single-mindedly sweat their way around the ruins in baffled amazement.

Locals seek shade until a more reasonable hour before venturing out in the summer months. So now you know why Athens looks like its residents just got news of an approaching ebola epidemic every August — everyone who can packs up and abandons the city, leaving it to the tourists.

5. Omonia. Now there’s a great part of town.

I regularly go to Omonia in Athens’ center, because it’s the only place where I can find South Asian ingredients and good Pakistani food, but Omonia is considered the ghetto of Athens. People can’t believe it when I tell them I go there, or worse, that I take my children there with me sometimes.

I once took a friend of my husband’s with me. He walked around in shock and looked utterly shaken. “I can’t believe a place like this exists in Athens.” he muttered, which I took as a compliment for the multicultural flavor of this area… until I realized that’s not what he meant.

6. Instead of coffee and cigarettes, I thought today was a good day to have a proper breakfast… so I ate a bowl of muesli.

The first time I came to Greece, I asked a Greek friend I was staying with what a typical Greek breakfast was. Turns out, in Europe’s No. 1 smoking nation, cigarettes and coffee is considered the breakfast of champions.

Neither crisis nor economic depression have made any significant impact on cigarette and coffee consumption here. True, plenty of Athens hipsters head to divey cafes to nurse a bowl of fruit salad in their pale embrace for breakfast, but no self-respecting Athenian starts the day without either a cigarette or coffee — preferably both.

7. The metro is on strike? Well, it’s been awhile since I took the bus.

Strikes are so common in Greece that a special site has been set up, the name of which translates to You can log on and check what strikes and protests are happening where, then plan your day accordingly.

The Athens metro is used by nearly half a million commuters each day. It’s clean, spacious and air-conditioned in the summer. From time to time it goes on strike. When this happens, hell hath no fury like an Athenian without their metro. News coverage is filled with furious passengers demanding the transport minister himself comes down and explains the mess to them.

8. So the city center has been shut down again because some hotshot is visiting? These security measures are necessary. Good job, Athens Police!

Thanks to the economic crisis, we regularly get various important leaders popping in to see if we’re behaving ourselves or not. In order to keep the peace, the authorities shut the city center down and divert traffic during such visits. This makes Athenians working in the center understandably irate. After seven years of recession, you can imagine how many times these visits happen. It drives Athenians crazy that they get inconvenienced and landed with the gigantic security bill that comes with such visits.

As for what they say to the police enforcing the no-go zones… that really can’t be repeated in a column my mother might potentially read.

9. A stop sign! Guess I better stop.

Athenians are simultaneously some of the worst and best drivers I’ve ever seen. They would easily be able to out-drive the zombie apocalypse, but they tend to be blind to signs to stop, not turn and not enter. If they break several traffic rules and then crash, they can never get to the bottom of how that happened. The latest traffic violations I have seen was a family riding to the beach on a boat hitched to the back of their car, and a priest driving with his son on his lap. His son was steering.

10. I don’t feel very well, but my first thought isn’t that it’s the mati.

The mati or the evil eye is blamed for everything in Greece. If you laugh at the concept, you will be immediately told someone’s personal story about the dark forces of the mati. My husband’s family is adamant that the evil eye is the reason that his grandmother’s sister died in childhood — fine one moment and gone the next.

If you look a bit tired, don’t feel too well or yawn more than once, someone will immediately suggest that you are under the influence of the evil eye and will promptly call their yiayia to remove it for you. I’ve got so used to it now that I say “Someone put a bad eye on me.” when I’m not even in Greece… which attracts some funny looks.

11. Great news, guys! This bar is actually imposing its no smoking rule!

Smoking in public places was banned in Greece in 2010. Allegedly. Nowhere I have been ever imposes the ban, and you’re treated as a spoilsport for requesting that it is. Instantly, posters went up in windows of shops inviting smokers to come on in and establish their democratic right to smoke in a free country, and they did so en masse.

Smoking is allegedly banned in confined places such as taxis. I have been asked while visibly pregnant by more than one taxi driver if I minded if he smoked.

That’s not to say that all of Greece treats you with contempt for requesting people don’t smoke around you or your children, but you can expect to get into some lengthy and pointless debates about smokers’ rights if you do.

12. So I went to the city center, and there was a parking space right there in front of me.

Anyone who has ever driven in Athens knows that parking spaces are nearly impossible to find in the center. The city downtown is extremely old, threaded through with narrow streets and alleys. You’re more likely to run into a unicorn downtown than a parking space that doesn’t require a can opener to get in and out of. Basically, the centre is the worst, but anywhere near a metro station becomes impossible to park in during the week.

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