While researching Greece prior to our Wonderful Greek Adventure, I came across some information that didn’t seem to match.
Despite the financial crisis, the austerity measure and one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, Greece has one of the highest self-reported happiness rates in the world.
How come the Greek people are so happy in the face of significant negative issues?
Is it religion?
The Greeks are a religious group with – stating that they regard their faith as important. But, many countries are made up of people of strong faith. In fact, Greece is not even on the list of the 20 most religious countries.
Are there strong family ties?
The Greeks have strong family ties. But the Italians and the Indians too. Many cultures around the world value a united family. Some countries even have several generations of families living in the same house.
What about tradition?
Well, some traditions are strong. We joke that all men in Greece share 5 names (my son’s name, Kostas, is one of them.) And that seems to be true. We met SO many Georges! For example, if I had to guess the name of a Greek, I would start with George. LOL!
The reason for this is the tradition of naming children after grandparents. Heritage and tradition really unite a group. Greece is #3 in the list of top countries with the best heritage.
Is it the mentality of taking life slowly and savoring it?
The Greeks thus have the saying “Siga, siga” which means “slowly, slowly”. It could be that… except that other countries have this same idea. Italy has “La Dolce Vida” – the sweet life, and Hawaii has “Island Time”.
Then I came across:
The Greek question no one can answer: what is Filotimo?
Before leaving on a trip, I looked for a definition of filotimo. According to the dictionary definition, filotimo means “love of honor”, but everyone agrees that filotimo has no equivalent in English.
Greeks are warm, friendly and talkative, but you can seriously draw silence with the question:
What is Filotimo?
I asked this question as much as possible during our two week adventure in Greece. I was usually answered with a silence followed by a shrug and a smile.
People who responded with words said:
- do good in your heart
- show kindness
- do good things even when no one sees you
The best equivalent I could find in English is the golden rule:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Even this is not a perfect translation because it is very clear that with filotimo no one does a good deed hoping that someone will do something good for them.
The very idea of filotimo is to give with your heart and NOT because you will get something in return.
Even the Italian saying I grew up with, “What happens comes back,” seems almost petty in the face of filotimo.
We saw filotimo notes everywhere.
The guide told us the story of a local who would take you to his house to taste his wonderful tomatoes. Not because he wants money for you to buy them, but because he was proud of his tomatoes.
Several times we were given dessert, free of charge, as they wanted to share something fabulous. No one has ever expected a tip or given the slightest hint that they might expect one. We were looking for change to finish the bill once and it was just pushed aside. We frequented a bakery and were given a cookie here and there – plus, as a gift. We thought this may have been because we had visited the bakery several times and yet we came across the same extra cookies as a gift on our first visit to the bakery in other cities.
I thought this might be an example of filotimo, but no. My Greek friend tells me these are examples of Greek hospitality.
Beware, Greece is in a difficult financial situation. People are only allowed to withdraw a certain amount of money per month, regardless of how much you have in the bank. Yet they still give small signs of friendship and goodwill at every turn.
In the end, I came away from our fabulous trip to Greece feeling a bit confused about the filotimo. I had only a very general and vague idea of what it was.
We found a fantastic silkscreen painting in Oia, Santorini. It was a numbered print and at 50/50 it was the last one, neatly rolled up in a cardboard tube for shipping. It cost 100 euros and while it wasn’t the most expensive piece of art, it wasn’t cheap either.
I mention it because only 2 days later we left it on the ferry we took from Santorini to the mainland.
My husband suggested we contact the ferry about a lost and found. Initially, I dismissed the idea thinking, frankly, that if found it would surely be kept as a case of “guardians of the discoverers”.
But my husband convinced me to reach out. (I guess he has a better view of humanity than I do.) I unenthusiastically sent a request to our travel agent in Greece to contact us on our behalf. To be completely honest, I expected her not to call them.
Why did this surprise me? Because she stood to benefit in no way. She wouldn’t make any money even though I was incredibly grateful (and I was) because I probably wouldn’t be going back to Greece anytime soon. Still, she called the ferry and emailed me back with the news, “They found a rolled up paper.”
Hmmm…..they found a rolled up paper? Could it be our painting rolled up in the cardboard tube?
I still don’t believe anyone would have actually shot in our painting, I sent a description of the painting to the ferry company. I expected my email to be buried, set aside for more pressing tasks.
But then there was a quick response. They had found our painting. But finding our painting and getting it to travel around the world are two different things.
Over the next 2 days, I filled out 6 papers for the USP. Apparently, it takes a lot of paperwork to ship something from an EU country to a non-EU country. I was amazed at the patience of the ferry staff as these emails came and went.
And then, less than a week since I reluctantly made the first phone call…there was our painting on our doorstep in the United States.
My own personal example of filotimo.
With ZERO benefits possible for each person, everyone still went out of their way to help me, a stranger:
- The travel agent made several phone calls
- The ferry staff searched for the painting
- The ferry staff emailed me back and forth to help me with paperwork to get it shipped to the US.
- Someone, with nothing to gain, brought the package to the post office
There’s always a but, right? My dear Greek friend tells me that the above experience is NOT filotimo but good business practice.
Here’s what she had to say about my lost and found painting:
“I think the painting situation is not a matter of filotimo, but more of good business practice, because Greece is so dependent on tourism. Sending you the lost painting is part of the business, the people involved doesn’t must give of themselves to get it for you. Fileotimo can be small deeds or big deeds, but it’s always about giving or doing whatever is necessary when it’s not what’s best for the giver.
So this experience, although really good, does not qualify. She promised to show examples of filotimo and I promise to be a good student and keep trying to understand this fantastic concept. I’ll let you know.
The filotimo explanation from my dear Greek friend is as follows:
“Filotimo, these are actions closer to sacrificing something to accommodate or help someone without publicity, from the heart, and doing it on a whim and automatically because it’s the right thing to do.
It goes deep and is learned and transmitted by observation and not by explicitly teaching it or talking about it. In fact, an act that shows a lack of filotimo is very frowned upon and the person is considered selfish.
It makes sense for you to measure actions against payment, but payment is non-existent when it comes to acting by filotimo.
The English golden rule is extinct as acts of filotimo never expect reciprocity, and the Italian motto seems to be the opposite of the spirit of filotimo. Here is a Greek saying that somewhat describes an aspect from filotimo: do the good deed and cast the knowledge of it into the sea. Or do it and forget it.
Learning about cultures
Learning the culture is not something you do in a 2 week visit to another country. We’re just taking a quick peek at the other fascinating places and peoples of the world. We take a flavor of it with us when we return home.
Maybe I’ll never fully understand the concept of filotimo and maybe even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to explain it. Never mind. I’m a better person for having heard about it – like you, and for trying to understand it.
Learn about people. To try to understand. Take a moment to explore what makes others different and interesting. Use your travels to become a better person and for your children to do the same. The act of learning is a step towards acceptance and isn’t that what the world needs most – desperately?
The word souvenir is French and means ‘to remember’ and this particular keepsake of the lost and found painting reminds me of all that is fantastic about Greece. The beautiful countryside, the beautiful people and the most beautiful untranslatable word ever.
It also reminds me of trying to spread our own filotimo here at home. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if filotimo was Greece’s number one souvenir?
If Greece is on your bucket list – and it should be – you’ll want more information!
Have a good trip!
Natalie, the educational tourist