What Greece is Really Like (for Women)

A Personal Viewpoint
By Stephanie Kordas

Doing Greece as a Tourist

Stephanie KordasBeing a tourist in Greece can be a fantastic experience, especially if you are young and female. Greece really is the land of sun, fun, and irresponsibility: luxurious swims amidst breath-taking beauty, long siestas with the songs of cicadas in the background, fresh seafood dinners in romantic settings, drinks in a bar by the sea, and those Greek men…Ah! how they charm you, making you feel like the most beautiful woman in the world! There’s even a name for this game of charm they play so well, it’s called "kamaki," the harpoon used to catch a fish in one deft stroke. But to the young, unsuspecting tourist, this charm is real and can feel extremely romantic.

As a tourist, you can leave behind that dreary job, the relationship you’ve squeezed dry, and become someone new in a country with a beauty that few places can match, and a passionate people that truly enjoy having a good time. Greece is the land where you laze about on hot summer days and let your wild side out at night. Home to the all important erotas (love, passion, romance) Greece is a land that comes alive at night, where no one who’s anyone goes out before midnight, nor to bed before dawn.

Working in Silicon Valley and can’t find a date? Come to Greece! No computer nerds here—for a Greek there’s always room for fun and passion, as the story of the great Onassis so clearly demonstrates. Broke? No problem! Everyone in Greece is broke all the time! But money is to be spent, and those Greek men sure like to spend it on a pretty tourist!

But is the grass really any greener?

Being a Greek-American, I have come to know Greece both as a tourist and as a resident citizen. To the tourist Greece can seem like Paradise, but when you live here, it often seems more like Purgatory.

As a woman, I have come to the sad conclusion that there is little respect for women as people in Greece. There is passion for the feminine, but no real love for the female, admiration for the lady, but contempt for the woman. An educated woman is doomed in the face of a sweet ignorant one, the experienced one scores far fewer points than the innocent. The Greek woman, however, knows the rules, and the clever ones play the game to their own advantage. Women in Greece are trained to make a good catch. But if you are a foreign woman, well… good luck!

The Rules of Dating

If you are determined to get involved with a Greek man, there are several rules you should follow. First, it is imperative that he NOT still live with his mother. Second, not only should he not live with his mother, but she should live as far away as possible. DO NOT marry a Greek man and move into the apartment on the floor above his mother. Rules 1 and 2 are the most important because it is virtually guaranteed that as the wife of a Greek man, you will despise all mothers-in-law in no time flat. You will quickly realize that even if your husband thinks he loves you, it is really just taken for granted by him and his entire kin that you are one of his appendages. There is a reason for the Greek tradition of stomping on your husband’s feet during the wedding ceremony: success in this venture is said to guarantee a wife the upper hand throughout her marriage. The problem is, she tends to dominate throughout the duration of her son’s marriage as well!

Third, your man of choice should be educated in a foreign country or well-traveled, preferably both. These experiences will broaden his mind so you won’t suffer from so much culture clash. And fourth, be sure you truly understand how your prince feels about women . How shocked I was when a 35-year-old acquaintance whom I’ll call Akis informed me that he really doesn’t think women are as mentally capable as men. As proof he offered, "There are so many more published male authors than female." My explanation that the discrepancy is owed to the fact that women have only been allowed to publish books relatively recently in comparison with men was petulantly answered with, "Well, no female writer has ever sparked my interest." I wonder if he’s read any? When I saw him last he was reading Freud. God help us!

A conversation with a lawyer friend of mine left me even more disappointed. This young man whom I believed to be open-minded, with great depth and intelligence, casually explained that for a Greek man there are two kinds of women: the ones that bring out great passion and with whom every man desires a tumultuous love affair, "and the ones that you marry." I twinged inside as I looked at this truly beautiful man, so capable, so full of potential, caught within the vice of the madonna-whore complex. And he is living it out. He had his tumultuous affair with an incredibly beautiful and vibrant woman throughout his years at university. Once it came time to go back to his island and take over his father’s law firm, however, he dropped the exotic mistress for a plainer, simpler, younger girl that matches his and his family’s expectations of a wife.

Another lawyer I know, in his late 30s and married with children, doesn’t even like his wife (and this is also not uncommon!). Why did he marry her? First, a wife is essential for having a family, particularly a son to carry on the family name. Second, she comes from a "good" family, meaning that her existence as his wife will be beneficial both to his career and to his wealth, for Greek women are usually provided with property, the essential bargaining tool for a good marriage.

Do you really want to walk down that isle?

If you expect that handsome Greek husband to be be faithful, think again. While extramarital affairs can be a potential problem anywhere, in Greece it is the status quo for the male partners. Still driven by beliefs of the 19th century, most Greek men take for granted that they have far greater sexual needs than women, thereby excusing their extra-curricular activities. This is not to say that women in Greece don’t ever have affairs, but it is a rarer occurrence, and women must be far more discreet about it, for there is still nothing worse to the Greek man than to be cuckolded.

Our friend, Akis, for example, maintains that while there is not a chance of his ever being faithful to his wife, he would never forgive his wife one night of passion with another man. He is not alone in his convictions. This is how the average man in Greece thinks. A wife should accept her husband’s infidelities with no complaint as long as he is discreet ("thereby showing her respect," Akis explains), but the husband will leave immediately upon learning of even one indiscretion on his wife’s part that might make him a fool in the eyes of others.

These criticisms may seem a bit harsh, but they are not inaccurate. The average Greek man may be looking for a companion, but he is certainly not looking for an equal partner. He wants a woman to support his image, make his coffee, cook his dinner, wash and iron his clothes, raise his children, and when necessary, massage his ego so that he still feels like a man.

In fact, it has been my experience that the average man in Greece is threatened by a woman showing any kind of strength. In an era when two incomes are often necessary for survival, it is of course acceptable for a woman to work, even to have a career. Just don’t ever forget that no matter how much money you are bringing in, his job is more important, and he will always be more tired than you when he gets home, so you’d better have that dinner ready!

And if you are a woman with a little muscle tone, you are doomed to a dateless future. You will inspire awe, but not commitment. As one 40-year-old man explained to me, if I want to find a man I have to look less independent. "Relax your shoulders!" he told me. "No man is going to date a woman with such square shoulders. You look too strong and confident." With that bit of information I squared my shoulders even more and walked off. Imagine that! I’ll only get a date if my shoulders droop!

The Working Woman in Greece

Unfortunately, the employment experience for a foreign woman in Greece is on par with the dating scene. Beware the snare of clever employers that will lose no time in taking advantage of your ignorance of labor laws in Greece. If you find work through an employment agency in your own country, your rights will usually be protected, but venture out on your own and you are sure to be exploited. At one interview for an administrative position in a school, I was asked by my male interviewer how I would handle sexual harassment coming from my boss (in other words, himself) versus an overture by the janitor. Needless to say, I didn’t pursue that position further! In general, as a woman in Greece, foreign or not, you will be overworked, underpaid, and easily replaced unless you have something very special to offer.

How Greece Really Operates

In some ways, Greece is no crueler to women than to men. To make money in Greece, you must do it illegally. Those who record their incomes honestly are usually rewarded by the government with a huge fine for some honest mistake in their books. Illegality is so much a part of the system in Greece that if you own a business of your own, every 3 years the tax office (I call them the Tax Mafia) offers to let you pay a nice little sum (starting at around 3000 euros for small businesses) up front and thereby avoid being audited. Those who refuse to pay the sum are audited, and 99% of the time they are fined a far greater sum for some small discrepancy found in their books.

In fact, to get anything important done in Greece, it’s easiest to pay someone off. Want to get your driver’s license? Why pay the 1000 euros needed for the mandatory driving lessons when you already know how to drive and can pay someone half that to get a proper license from an employee of the Ministry of Transportation? Need your car to pass inspection? You come out cheaper and far less hassled if you just pay someone who works there to pass it for you. Try to do things the proper way in Greece and you will be strangled by red tape and gagged with fines.

Shopping on the black market is also a necessity if you are trying to live on a Greek salary. Why pay almost 3 euros for a pack of cigarettes when you can buy a carton of 10 for only 10 euros? (And to all you Americans scoffing at the thought of buying cigarettes at any price, believe me, if you lived here you’d smoke, too!) But whether you smoke or not, buying something in this manner is an interesting experience. After weeks of walking past women furtively calling out "Tsigara! Tsigara!" curiosity finally got the better of me and I went to buy some. After looking me up and down, one of the a women firmly told me to wait while she ran off to a public trash bin, dug out a carefully covered blue plastic bag, and from there extracted a carton of my brand. Last week I learned that the smugglers had been caught and a huge supply of their untaxed cigarettes had been seized. "There won’t be any more for a month, now," she explained with wrinkled brow. Oh, well, I really need to quit, anyway…

Having learned to drive in the US, I never run red lights, and I do at least yield at stop signs, but driving in Athens will bring out the rebel in just about anyone. Within months I promise you will have learned the art of parking illegally without paying the consequences, you will find yourself speeding up on yellow, inconspicuously weaving in and out of the taxi/bus lane, making illegal u-turns, and generally committing more traffic misdemeanors than you ever thought possible. I wonder how Athenians will fare with all these strict new traffic laws enacted temporarily for the Olympics?

In conclusion…

Of course, it is easy to criticize Greece and its people, and one must remember that Greece is a small country going through many changes at a fast pace. It is only 30 years that Greece has been free from a dictatorship preceded by wars and famine. During this time the country’s overall wealth and power has grown dramatically, and a field of choices has opened up to its people. Acceptance into the European Union has spurred even further progress. And, inevitably, as economic and political stability increase, value systems begin to change as well (though this is a much slower process in Greece!). As a result, Greece today is an interesting and frustrating combination of the old and the new, and it can take a lot of courage to live in this enigmatic land.

Greece, like its men, can break your heart. The country’s physical beauty haunts you like your beloved when you leave him behind; its songs rip through your soul when heard outside its borders; memory of its passion tortures you through sleepless nights. And so you come back, missing this land desperately, needing to feel the caress of its breezes on your skin, to taste the salt of its turquoise seas on your lips, to wish upon its abounding shooting stars on cool summer nights. You come back, and spellbound, you decide to stay.

Just beware, Greece is not the postcard it seems. And for all you Shirley Valentines hoping for romance, remember that ninety-eight percent of those charming Greek men are really looking for Stepford wives, and whether they marry you or not, the minute you turn your back they’ll be using that harpoon to snare another unsuspecting fish.

Stephanie Kordas 1967-2005
(Click to see her webpage)

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