National pride and culturally specific concepts

by Yannis Xamonakis –

“The Vogons are one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy – not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without an order, signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public enquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters”.

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Even after years of being part of the community in this corner of Crete, there are still many unanswered questions in the enquiring minds of our British fellow residents. Questions about the language and the culture of the people in this part of the world. Or, more importantly, questions about how the system works here, and what the procedure is for getting, let’s say, electricity, heating oil, medical treatment, car tax, a planning permit or make a property transaction.
Some of these questions are asked directly to local people, some to compatriots who have lived here a long time and some are not asked at all.

Many answers are conjured up from assumptions based on experiences, beliefs and prejudices. But getting answers from locals is not difficult. You only need to start talking at the baker’s or the grocer’s or while waiting for the butcher to chop your chicken into bone-shattered pieces (always say no to that); or to the people at the table next to yours at the taverna, or those sharing your table at the local kafeneion, and Apokoronas will cheerfully bare its soul. After all, a friendly disposition is one of the things the locals are proud of.

There are many other things Greek people are proud of. For example, their ancient culture, their language with its many words that have become part of other languages and their ability to face adversity and survive.
Nonetheless, in the last couple of thousand years the world moved on , while Greece went into decline. And Greeks, underneath their surface confidence of having a direct link to one of the great civilizations of the past, crave for approval from those foreigners they sometimes playfully disparage. There is nothing more pleasing for local people than to hear good things about Greece from the mouths of ordinary visitors. ‘Love the people’, ‘beautiful country’, ‘lovely food’. And yet another level of excitement is reserved for VIP visitors when asked the same questions, as they come out of Michelin-starred restaurants in the capital. As in ‘What do you think of Greek food Amal?’ ……

And when the visitors manage to utter a sentence or two in Greek, it is a further sign of approval and a recognition that modern Greece amounts to something.
True enough, Greek is a difficult language to master, and speaking it fluently is doubly so. The aforementioned response to questions, therefore, takes place mostly in English, embellished with the air of authoritative knowledge: “… and as we are on the subject of language, what is this I hear about the untranslatable Greek concepts, something I read about recently, what was the word?…. Ahh… filotimow?” one of our British residents asks. To which the willing Greek readily responds: “A most untranslatable, demanding and really mysterious word in the Greek language. Filotimo. Literally, of course, it means friend of honour. But Filotimo is much, much more…”, and so on.

This is a bit of an exaggeration, really. Because, first, there is nothing untranslatable about honour and a respect for others. The word is often used in the same way as ‘shame’ when speaking (hypothetically) of a politician who refuses to leave office even after he has been exposed as a liar and a crook. “He has no filotimo,” people say. And secondly, it is not an innate quality of the Greeks, as some people claim. For it presumes a basic degree of honesty and a sense of right and wrong, which, as is also the case with other nationalities, some Greeks do not have.

But there are many other, truly untranslatable words in the Greek language. And they are all the invention of those beings who are trying to think of ways to make life difficult for everyone in this country. Try to translate from Greek to another language, as briefly as you can, words that have a shared meaning for all who live in Greece: Nominal values, Shared plots, Builder’s electricity, Luxurious living, Illegal property, Taxable horsepower and many, many more.

The reason why I mention these unique concepts, and that my list of words relates mainly to property, is that I was recently reminded of some of the problems hundreds of European property owners are faced with while attempting to procure or sell their dream home in the sun. Needless to say, there are many other property owners who are perfectly happy with their home and have encountered no building problems whatsoever.

The case in point was not one of straightforward dishonesty on the part of the developer, such as siphoning off cash from the trusting client’s bank account or keeping for himself the workers’ insurance (IKA), resulting in the owner getting additional demands years later. I would argue that the state also bears a large share of the responsibility even in these cases, as the whole system relies on producing regulations too complex for anyone to follow, backed by stiff fines for not following them. While, at the same time, it tacitly colludes with rogue operators by leaving many loopholes and by not having a system for checking whether any of these regulations are adhered to.

No, this case was not one relating to the developer’s dishonesty as there was no money to be made, nor could anyone predict the changes in regulations. It is entirely the fault the bureaucrat creatures who continue to produce rules and regulations by the bucketful to justify their existence. Rules that no one used to take seriously, not even other bureaucrats in other government agencies.

The discussion between my acquaintance, who wanted to sell her house, and her solicitor went like this:
“I was told that I cannot sell without having new contracts drawn…”
Solicitor: “That is correct. Your house is on a shared plot. The two houses should have been much closer together and linked by an arch.”
“So does that mean that my house is illegal? I have a building permit from the planning department with all the right stamps and everything…”
Solicitor: “Your house is perfectly legal. But you cannot sell it or transfer it without new documents.”

And he went on to explain how the plans of the property were drawn up when the plot was purchased and how different plans were submitted to the notary. The plans were later redrawn to the buyers’ specifications and a planning permit was obtained, thus making the property legal. A common practice, apparently, and one that nobody had any problems with, until now. New regulations? Enforcing some old ones that came out of storage? A chance for the government to make some extra cash? Who knows? But, hey, don’t panic. There’s nothing that can’t be fixed in this country for a few thousand euros.

But we need to think about this as a nation. People who choose to live here love this country and are prepared to put up with some inconvenience and extra expense. But this continual moving of the goalposts, randomly and retrospectively, is not only very hard to explain to someone outside the cultural confines of Greece, but can also outbalance the benefits of living in this beautiful place. Is this really the face of Greece we want to present internationally, at a time when, as the government says, we need more investment from abroad? But who would really expect Vogons to develop filotimo?

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