The author James Michener once said: “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home” and we couldn’t agree more. There is no point in travelling to a place if you stick to yourself or your travel buddies and are not ready to meet the locals. But sometimes, beside the possibility of being lost in translation, you may unknowingly hurt or offend. To avoid awkward situations, we have compiled a few things you should avoid and never say when in Greece. Remember a little sensitivity goes a long way.
This may or may not shock you depending on what part of the world you come from, eating from a main plate (with utensils) is common practice in Greece. Of course, if you have a meal in a proper restaurant, you will have your own plate but Greeks, as social as they are, enjoy sharing a series of small portions of food all together, which certainly contributes to strengthening bonds.
Yes, Greeks tend to use a lot of oil when cooking. In fact, it is said that Greeks consume about 23 liters a year. It may seem much, but olive oil has many antioxidants and is said to be one of the best sources of the good monounsaturated fat. Since the Greek diet mostly consist of vegetables, the amount of oil is balanced out with the amount of vegetables eaten. Plus, olive oil is one of the main reasons why the food is so delicious, so if you are worried about calories, remember that there is always some leftover oil on the plate once you’re done so you are not ingesting all of them.
It is true that feta cheese is common in a variety of dishes, but it is not the only cheese you will find in Greece. In fact, Greece is known to be one of the nations that consume the largest amount of cheese in the world. The reality that feta cheese is one of the most versatile contributes to the fact it is often used, but there are dozens of cheeses available throughout the country, without mentioning the local varieties. So if you are a cheese lover, you know which country to travel next.
Ok, please bear with us for a second before saying something. It is not offensive or insulting to ask for ketchup in a taverna. It is simply unusual for many. In Greece, Greek food, and especially fried potatoes, is not eaten with ketchup, as this is a ‘recent’ export in the last 40 years. While you will easily find them in fast food chains and other more ‘westernized’ restaurants, tavernas, where food tends to be traditional, don’t use ketchup. Now, of course, since tourism is a very important sector, it is not rare to find tavernas in urban areas highly frequented by tourists where they will bring you ketchup if you ask for it, but eating fries with it while enjoying traditional food is weird for Greeks.
While there is a tiny portion of the Greek population that worship the ancient gods and fight for the restoration of the ancient Greek polytheist religion, the majority of the nation does not. Greece is a predominantly Greek Orthodox country, while a few other faiths coexist in small portions.
More than an offense, this is more a cultural issue. Traditionally, Greeks do not name their newborns before they are baptized. Before that special day, the baby is referred to as ‘bebe’, if it’s a boy or ‘beba’ if it’s a girl.
The animosity between the two nations is nothing new. And while both sides may sometimes deny it (after all, many of us are peace-loving people), there is indeed a certain degree of tension between the two people. But unless you are discussing it with someone well versed in the matter, asking this might just create some tension in the conversation for nothing.
This is connected to the point above. Even if there is a slight difference in the way the coffee is made, a simple rule of thumb in that case would be to say Greek coffee when in Greece and Turkish coffee when in Turkey.
This is also a hot issue. During the Byzantine era, Istanbul was called Konstantinopoli, the ‘City of Constantin’, the Byzantine emperor who established the city as the capital of the Christian Byzantine empire. When the Ottomans took over the city in 1453, they rebaptized it Istanbul, which derives from the phrase “εἰς τὴν Πόλιν” (or is tim ˈbolin), which means “to the city”, as the Greeks used to call it. As this page of history is still a touchy subject for many Greeks, better to avoid it. Of course many Greeks understand that foreigners may not be aware of this and they won’t burn you if you do say Istanbul but just know that it is a sensitive subject.
The case of FYROM (or the Republic of Macedonia) is a bit complicated (also called Macedonia Naming Dispute), all you have to remember is that Greece also has a region called Macedonia and therefore refuse to acknowledge their northern neighbor’s right to call itself the Republic of Macedonia, after it gained independence in 1991. If you have to mention the country, refer to it as FYROM (former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).
Now let us tackle a strong stereotype common. The idea, recently strengthened with the economic crisis, that Greeks are lazy is unfounded. A simple look at statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that Greeks actually work the longest hours in Europe (with 40 hours per week in 2013, while the EU average is set at 37.2). Furthermore, Greeks tend to take fewer holidays than Germans, Italians or Swedes. One of the reasons that could explain this myth is that Greeks are very social and spend a lot of time outside. They enjoy taking their time when socializing over coffee. You should also remember that the 9 to 5 work schedule is more predominant in private companies and offices while civil servants or people working in the food industry tend to start and end earlier.