Today I was running late to meet a dear friend, waiting for me in her home high on the hill. I took a bus and got off as close as I could, but it was still a long way up. After fifteen minutes I'd passed maybe three blocks and was sweating rivers underneath my clothes. A yellow cab turned the corner and my body's instant reflex was to wave like a madwoman.
Slid into the passenger side, told the driver the street name and immediately started rummaging for money because I'm sorry to report, I was a little curious if I had any. Phew! A ten euro bill! And as the relief washed over me he stopped the car and looked at me.
"This is your street."
But oh no! He'd passed my fair lady's house, who knows how far back. I gave him a withering look and told him so in a kind of "man, I'm a moron" way, but prepared to get out regardless. He stopped me and did a u -ee, meandering back and forward through the maze of one ways and hairpin turns until he arrived squarely at her front door. Amazing where you can get in this world by paying attention to what's going on outside of the window. Exactly where you wanted to be!
Proudly presenting my ten, he shook his head and asked for smaller change.
"Den Eho." I don't have it.
I pulled out of my pocket a sorry little two euro coin. "See?"
He nodded and took it, giving me a salute.
I'm recording this story because Athenian cab drivers have the reputation somewhere slightly above Enron executives and kitten killers. You might recall a few times in this here long string of thoughtless ranting where I've said exactly what I think of them, but this man went out of his way to get me where I wanted to be and took under the minimum for his fee. You know why? He's human, and that is something I would like to emphasize about the country of Greece, and even the city of Athens.
Homeless people flock here because the weather is good and because Greek people are kind to strangers. Note, I'm not implying they're going to be warm and sweet. I said kind. What I mean by that is that they may not offer food, lodging or work with a smile, but they offer it. Not on a Non-profit, mass organized social program sort of way, but one human being to another.
The gypsies are notorious for begging at restaurants. Time and time again I brush them away, only to watch the table next to me either drop a few coins or offer them their leftover plate of food. I grew up with a line of thinking that these people should be doing something else to raise their family. Get a job, go to a church or a center where folks are trained and equipped to deal with these "people," anything, anything except ask for a handout.
I think Americans, and maybe even moreso, Texans, poo poo asking for money. We're supposed to be able to stand on our own feet, no matter the grueling tasks that it takes to do so. Stand against a tree and be shot for robbing a bank before you ask for a handout. Here, I think they see things a little differently. Maybe it's residual from all of those stories of gods in disguise, but desperation is recognized and pitied.
But it's not just about money, either. Once inside my friend's house, seated on two wingback chairs in front of a fan, the conversation turned to corporal punishment and the death penalty. I lamented that Texas has more often than not won the belt for most executions. She remembered that the guillotine was used into the 1950's. How strange that two of the world's most advanced nations would still be so primitive in their handling of criminals?
"I don't think the Greeks ever had public executions," she said without conviction.
"Oh but they have!"
She didn't believe me, so I reported a story I'd read, written by a traveler in the 1800's who had watched one of the rare executions in Athens. It was instituted by the Bavarian King, I believe, and the prisoner was lead freely to the place where he was to be beheaded. Half way down he started fighting with the executioner. The people were cheering for the criminal! He was eventually restrained, the deed was done, and the audience plotted on how they would kill the man who gave the blow.
She clapped her hands in delight. "That's them! That's the Greeks. The rebels."
Stray dogs and cats are fed here. People invite their neighbors over to watch football or eat the oversupply of supper. Items are purchased on the credit of one's character; no plastic involved. Even the arrogant policemen have been spotted letting illegal immigrants get off on a "Don't let me see you here again" kind of imaginary warning.
It's called Φιλοτιμο, filotimo, and is a word that doesn't exist in any other language. The closest we can get to translation is "earnestness" combining the words "filo" or "friend" and "timo" or "honor," but the only way to understand it is to see it in 3-D. You see it every time someone is being helped.
I've been told, and to some degree I've experienced that it doesn't mean the person who was kind to you one day isn't capable of turning around and screwing you the next, but the point of all of this is to say that Greece is a human country. People still count. It's why they're so angry, so even if it's a tad annoying, the strikes, the rallies, the irregular visiting hours, it is part of the package.Take it or leave it.