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Things You Should Know About Greece

A few things that may have been skipped elsewhere


Recently, I encountered some faithful readers while traveling in Greece. Not wanting to miss my chance, I asked them what they had liked about my site - and also, what else they wished I had told them beforehand. Here's the result - with a couple of additions of my own. When I saw them blithely rent a motor scooter and go zooming around the island, I was worried until I saw them arrive back safely. Maybe they had missed my article "Driving in Greece - Freedom and Frenzy".

1. Greeks Speak Greek - And English

Bilingual Greek-English sign at Athens Airport
Picture of sign at Athens Airport copyright deTraci Regula; licensed to About.com

On a recent trip to Greece, one of my traveling companions confessed that when they had mentioned their upcoming trip to Greece, a relative had asked "What language do they speak in Greece?" So, here is the answer - Greeks speak Greek. But since all schoolchildren start learning English in the third grade, most Greeks under 40 will know English. Those in the tourist industry, especially in the locations favored by foreign tourists, usually have a good command of English as well as a few other languages. The language barrier will not be a big problem for you on your trip... and if you learn the letters of the Greek alphabet you'll be one step ahead.

2. Motorcycles and Motor Scooters are Dangerous in Inexperienced Hands

There's little to compare to the sense of freedom that renting a motorcycle or motor scooter can give you on your trip to Greece. However, wild curvy roads, uneven surfaces, slow-moving farm vehicles and fast-driving Greeks can also make this a highly dangerous activity. Wear the helmet and keep alert; even driving in Greece is challenging.

3. Greek Toilets are Quirky

Helpful signs describe the intricacies of using Greek toilets.
Picture of Greek toilet sign copyright by deTraci Regula; licensed to About.com

Greek plumbing has seemingly gone downhill since Minoan times, when flush toilets were developed in about 2000 b.c.e. The modern Greek plumbing system is - or believes itself to be - incapable of handling toilet paper. Yes, you read that right. The Greek method is to do your business in the toilet, but to put the paper in the wastebasket located nearby. This sounds far worse than it is in practice, but it is still unnerving for many travelers used to flushing toilet paper down, um, the toilet. If you forget, don't fish it out, but for the sake of your hotel keeper or restaurateur, try to remember to throw it in the waste basket.

The quirky toilet doesn't end there, I'm afraid. Sometimes it will take detective skills to figure out how to flush it. If you are traveling off the beaten path, it may be a button, a pull chain, a button on an elevated tank, a standard flush, a foot-pedal flush, or many other variants.

Most modern toilets - and this is the majority - have a roughly oblong double-button area. This is actually a green device which allows you to select a "big flush" or a "little flush", depending on the need.

4. Be Early - And Ready to Wait

Time is relative in Greece - even when it comes to buses, trains, hydrofoils and ferries. While everyone more or less expects that such things can run late in normal circumstances, they can also run early in Greece. Sometimes there's a good reason - I nearly missed a hydrofoil leaving a few minutes early because the weather was changing and they wanted to make it to the next port as quickly as possible. If you are, or are traveling with, one of those people who always gets everywhere early Just In Case, you may find that a valuable trait in Greece. But it will be more than offset by an approximately equal number of times that the vehicle in question is running late.

5. Please Don't Scowl at the Last Person to Board the Plane

I've done it myself on a hot airport shuttle bus - let a less-than-welcoming expression blight my face as that last sweaty person we've been apparently waiting for for the past ten minutes finally deigns to approach the gate. But the truth is, that poor person has just been through airport hell through no fault of their own. They have innocently been put on stand-by and then delayed until almost the time of depature, when a gate agent suddenly generates their documents with a flourish, pushes them into their hand, and says "Go! Go! The plane is about to leave!" sending the innocent victim racing through the airport, through security, and finally into the last sprint to the gate bus and all those scowling faces... usually while ominous announcements over the loudspeaker are impatiently requesting their immediate presence at the gate by name.

Making this situation worse, the airline may not have been compassionately waiting for a previously-booked client to show up at all. In Greece, some short-hop planes heading for islands with short runways literally don't know how many passengers they will take until they've calculated the luggage weight. In that case, the luggage crew generates another last-minute "Yes! We have room!" message and launches all the flurry described above.

6. Street Crime in Athens

Athens is one of the safest world capitals - but does that mean perfectly safe? Not quite. Pickpockets in particular seem to be getting more and more active, but a little caution can go a long way in keeping your vacation safe.

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