Monday, 23 June 2014

June 20 – Culture clashes

Saints do not talk (ag. Eirini, Neochori)

(By: Pip)

When we visit other countries, we're open to other manners and customs. We're interested and we adjust. That is right, yes?

We make some efforts to learn the language, even if it is just a few words. We will be touched by seeing an old woman with a back like a snapped tree, dressed all in black, shuffling along a street. We will wait patiently until she reaches the other side of the street. Our hearts beat with joy, seeing an authentic village square where old men play board games with others watching and hanging around. And even though we know we will make a fool of ourselves on Greek nights, we will join the group to dance the sirtaki. And we will feel honoured when somebody offers us a local delicacy. Even if we are afraid it will give us the shits, we are too polite to refuse the offer. I recently was offered a preserved fig filled with nuts; it came from a smudgy pot standing on a even more smudgy kitchen counter, where beside it sat a soup pot and the worn-out mules of the lady of the house. I should not have worried: the fig tasted wonderful, my intestinal flora kept calm and I did not offend this woman by refusing her offer.

But we do use our own culture and habits as the base from which we judge other people. It is not that we want to harm locals, but without knowing we might offend them. I will not use as an example the young people dancing topless on bars and boozing until they drop in Chersonissos on Crete (and other popular Greek destinations), because while this behaviour is obviously offensive, it has no practice here on Lesvos. Not yet. And I do not want to call this scandalous behaviour cultural, it is just commonplace obscene vandalism.

An example made by young and old passing a cultural border, has to do with customs: while the Lesvorian people are still wearing winter coats in spring, the first tourists, happy to finally see the sun, parade with their milky white calves in short trousers. Even though we know that it is not appreciated, we just pop into that lovely little church in those same short trousers with bare shoulders. In the larger Greek churches, popular with tourists, the parish clerk will have shawls ready for visitors to cover their nakedness. The small ones however, many of them having the key in the door, are unprotected and everybody can visit them, in whatever manner they are dressed. No living soul will see it, except for the many images of saints, who do not seem to judge - though they may think it unworthy.

And the so-called ex-patspeople who have houses in a foreign country also trespass on many cultural borders. It can be in the Algarve, Tuscany or on a Greek island like Lesvos. When  a handyman is needed and he does not come at the agreed time, there might be a culture clash. Then the air fills with lots of grumbling about the work ethic of the Portuguese, Italians or Greeks. What we don't consider is that the handyman is too polite to say that the proposed time to do the job is not convenient for him. He doesn't want to bother you with the information that he has a second job or that the proposed day is on a local holiday, that he cannot get the materials in time or that he does not have the money to pay for them. He will simply come as soon as he can.

My first encounter with a handyman on Lesvos also came as a cultural shock. The ordered washing machine was supplied earlier than expected. Because I wasn't at home and my door was closed (I may be the only one on Lesvos who locks doors) the deliveryman came to fetch me at my work. The next morning, totally unexpected and very early, the plumber knocked on my door - on Sunday! Instead of being grateful that he came on his free day to connect my washing machine, I nearly refused him entry to my house.  In my culture it's not the custom to receive a plumber or any handyman in your nightdress. Before you know it, you may have a bad reputation and every Sunday you'll  find a Greek on your front porch.

© Pip, 2014

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