I came to Greece last year as part of a long solo-trip to Europe I had planned. From Naples Italy, I flew into Athens, then I hopped on the Blue Star ferry to explore the Cycladic islands. Arriving at the islands, I immediately fell for the laid-back lifestyle and Greek culture. I spent a week in Paros, staying at Jimmy’s, a cozy and minimal hostel, and lounging by the clear blue Aegean sea. Then, I made my way to Santorini, where I was meeting my sister. As the ferry pulled into the port, I was admiring the caldera views and classic Cycladic architecture and I was filled with excitement. Little did I know that my first trip to Santorini would change the course of my life.
My sister, having flown from the States on her vacation, met me at our hotel and there, we caught up, planned our activities and what we wanted to do and see during our time in Santorini. I had met a friendly Greek fellow on the island of Paros, who introduced his friend living in Santorini to my sister and me via Facebook. The friend messaged me so my sister and I met up with him for a night out. My sister was a bit weary of meeting up with a random Greek guy, but having been traveling for several months, I was more than open to new friends and perhaps seeing Santorini from a locals perspective. As it turned out, we really hit it off, me and him, and he graciously showed my sister and I around, taking pride in Greece and the island he calls home.
He took us to all the secret spots, away from the tourists, where we swam through caves and ate fish by the sea. Needless to say, I was a bit heartbroken when I had to leave. I was flying to London with my sister to visit one of her friends and explore the city before we both flew back home to the States.
My original plan was to travel for 6 months, 3 in Europe and 3 in the Caribbean. But leaving Europe and feeling like I left something behind there, I decided to nix the Caribbean and go back to Europe. After 2 weeks at home, I found a cheap flight to Berlin and headed back. I traveled through Germany, Austria, Prague, Hungary, and Croatia for about a month then flew back to Santorini. My intuition was telling me my time there wasn’t finished and plus, I now had an invitation to stay for the rest of my travels in Santorini with my new friend. I didn’t have any expectations or time-frame for how long I would stay, part of the appeal of solo-travel and no itinerary, but I ended up staying for 3 months. While I was there, I developed a relationship with the island, made new friends, and landed a new boyfriend. It was blissful.
Due to visa restrictions, I had to go back to the U.S., but I knew I would be back. And I was right. I secured a long-term visa while back in the States and here I am now, living in Santorini. I’ve grown tremendously while living in a new country and expanding my knowledge of Greece and its culture. It’s a fascinating place, rich with history and traditions, and home to some of the kindest people. I like to reflect a lot on my time here and how it has benefitted me in many ways. I do think that I’ve become a better person, adopting to the Greek way, learning about myself in the process, and realizing some things about American culture that I don’t like. Here are 5 life lessons I’ve learned from the Greeks while living in Santorini!
1. Material Things Are Not Important
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned while living in Greece is not to put value on material items. Whether it’s an abundance of presents at Christmas or on birthdays, Americans tend to put an emphasis on materials to show someone you love and care about them. While I love giving someone I care about a gift, I realize now it’s not so important. Showing a loved one you care can be displayed in different ways like inviting one over for a coffee or for dinner. Even the simple act of supporting family or a partner by lending a hand when they are sick or being happy for them as they celebrate an exciting life goal is showing you care. Support and love come from just simply being there for one another.
Especially with someone whom I may see everyday, it’s invaluable to give them my ear or advice if they need to talk about something. I believe when the emphasis on material possessions is taken away from the equation, as I’ve experienced in Greece a lot of the time, there’s more value on creating friendships, supporting one another, and providing favors that are always returned. It’s comforting to know that someone always has my back and that makes me happy to do the same.
2. Being Crafty And Creative
This would definitely tie into not placing emphasis on material items, but Greeks are some of the craftiest people I’ve ever met. In a situation like needing to furnish my home, my first thought would be to go to a furniture store or a second hand store and buy something. The Greeks first thought is how they are going to make what they want. I’ve seen comfortable and cozy couches made from pallets, dried seaweed, and a blanket. One of my friends made an elegant outside patio table for her villa from a picture she saw online. And some people make a living by carving sculptures out of pumice from the beach.
It’s no wonder that Santorini is so crafty since a large portion of the island is made up of cave homes built on the side of the caldera. And not just any caves, but beautiful caves painted with a white-wash and the prettiest pastels, modernly decorated, and incredibly sturdy. Many tourists opt to stay in these cave homes that are now upscale villas.
At least in Santorini, people take advantage of what’s around them in the environment, from nature to another person’s trash, and utilize it to their best ability by making anything and everything, referred to as “up cycling.” And if they’re really creative, they will use their craft and skill to make a living. Many items in the souvenir shops, like Santorini trinkets, are handmade.
Now, I find myself making curtains from scrap fabric and sanding and painting old furniture people have given me or found on the side of the street. In addition to saving money, these are projects I love because of the sense of accomplishment at the end. It gives things character when I can say I made that.
Greek people pride themselves on their hospitality skills, and for good reason. They are known for their kindness and generosity and having witnessed these traits on more than one occasion, I can attest to that. Everyone greets me hello and goodbye with two kisses, one on each cheek. They mean it when they say they want to get a coffee and just chat. Everyone is interested in where I’m from, obviously not Greece, and what I’m doing here. Even strangers are quick to smile and say hello. The lady who works at the coffee shop now gives me the local discount, having seen my face many times.
I was fortunate enough last year to be invited on a week long walking tour to three different Greek islands, Amorgos, Naxos, and Iraklia, all in the Cyclades. While in Amorgos and walking through a village, the start of an ascent to the top of the mountain, an elderly woman from the village, who lived right off the path. She invited my group in to see her home and conveniently had prepared loukoumades, a traditional Greek donut, and rakomelo, a liquor drink mixed with honey, which she so kindly offered us. It was the start of a long hike and her treats could not have been more perfect. She was so nice, giving us a small tour of her home with old pictures lining every surface, laying neatly on white doilies. There were a few cats outside who were lingering, of course, while I stuffed myself full of loukoumades and rakomelo. Lets just say it’s hard to say “no more, thank you” to an elderly Greek woman who loves having the company and vice versa. And to top it all off, the woman brought out flowers, made from an old t-shirt and pipe cleaners and gave them to each woman in my group.
A trip to Greece would not be complete without an experience like that one. And it’s not hard to get an experience like it. It’s quite common for a Greek to invite you into their home so casually, for coffee or for a drink. It’s just their hospitable way.
4. Using Direct Communication
At least in my experience, Americans tend to be indirect when it comes to communicating, often incorporating passive aggressiveness or subtle hints to get the intended message across. I find this irritating in many ways, mostly because I’m left guessing. Just like a lot of other Europeans, Greeks are not shy about saying how they feel. They will tell you if you made them happy or upset. If they need or want something they will just ask. Even if my outfit looks bad, they will mention perhaps I should change. And they expect the same in return. Greeks become uneasy when it comes to indirect communication. They respect and appreciate directness. This hasn’t been an easy lesson to learn, having been used to indirectness and tending to hold my own feelings back, but it’s a challenge I accept.
During my time in Santorini, I’ve heard many stories of bad days and how the island stress is getting the best of someone. If my partner is mad or upset with me, there’s no holding back. Most of the time, I appreciate hearing what he has to say, but I’m not so much a fan of the direct communication style when he tells me “I tend to interrupt people.” I guess we all have room for a little self improvement.
Living most of my 26 years in NC, USA, I only heard about bad days and stressors from close friends and family. If I was upset with someone, I would maybe discuss it with someone other than the actual person whom I am upset with, but even that was kept to a minimum. In Greece, if I’m passing an acquaintance while I’m out, which happens quite often, and I ask how their day is going, I better expect an honest answer. Whether it’s good or bad, they will tell me about it with no filter. It’s quite refreshing and real to hear the truth. There’s no sugar-coating, it just is what it is.
5. Patience Is Key Because Island Time Is Real
Now, this one I have to admit, I’m still working on. For those who know me well, I’m not the most patient person, especially when it comes to waiting on others. Yet, everyday in Santorini I find myself “patiently” waiting for someone to meet me even though I’m on time or waiting off to the side while Greek friends catch-up. It seems that all events start at a later time than specified. Everything runs at a more relaxed pace so patience I’ve learned, is key to staying calm.
Unlike in America where it seems like everyone is always in a rush, the Greeks live a laid-back lifestyle and don’t usually feel the need to be on time. If someone is late, they are just late and there’s nothing you can do about it. More often than not, my days never go as planned because something unexpected comes up or things take a longer time than I accounted for.
However, despite the late—ness and playing the waiting game, my days always work out for the best. I’ve learned not to rush because the other person is probably running late, too and while I wait on whatever and whomever it may be, I make use out of that time by trying to learn some Greek. Sometimes, I simply just relax, admire my surroundings, and embrace the Greek way of life.