Greece is East
Greece is often thought of as a Western European Country. An idyllic tourist destination full of beautiful beaches, whitewashed buildings and amazing sunsets.
Having now lived in Greece for 2 years, our day-to-day experience is very different. It is undoubtedly a beautiful place with amazing weather, beaches, mountains and wonderful seasonal food & hospitality. But at its heart it is more East than West and the majority of people, including us, don’t live year-round on an idyllic beach. In fact, the majority of people live in apartments in the densely populated cities.
Here are a few reasons that we believe Greece is East. Let’s start with the most obvious but often overlooked fact:
Greece is located in the far corner of South Eastern Europe. Its borders are with Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey. The time zone is 2 hours ahead of the UK which is called Eastern European time.
You know the saying, it’s all Greek to me? Well now we know why. It’s so true. Before we could even get started on learning Greek, we had to learn a whole new alphabet with different sounds. Definitely not like any Western European language that I have learned or tried to read.
The national daily headlines are very much focussed on the East primarily Turkey along with Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. There are currently very real growing tensions with Turkey with Erdogan demanding demilitarisation of the Greek islands close to Turkey or Greece will face the consequences!
Landscape of contrasts
Discovering the beauty of mainland Greece has been a real eye-opener. Outside of the cities, there aren’t just beautiful beaches with crystal clear waters but the most amazing pine tree covered mountains. However, we have often said that it is both the most beautiful and the ugliest place we have lived. The impact of the financial crisis continues. There are many areas full of boarded up, graffiti covered buildings, half-finished shells and broken pavements.
Unlike a Western more individualistic society, the culture is very much family and relationship centred. It takes times to be trusted and accepted into Greek circles but once you are in, you are in for life even if you disagree. Animated, angry discussions seem quite common between Greeks but they don’t break the strong relational ties.
And making plans? Why would you plan? Who knows if you will have tomorrow? So, we have found the children are often invited to birthday parties at very short notice which messes with our diary and Western need to know what we are doing at the weekend!
To be Greek is to be orthodox. Family traditions and festivals look amazing. It looked like our whole village came out to celebrate Jesus at Easter! But the chanting by priests in Ancient Greek is not understood by many. In practice, there appears to be a remnant of mostly older people known as “the faithful” attending services and observing strict fasting.
Pre Covid the Greek economy was starting to recover. Post Covid, the government are hopeful of growth with EU money and foreign investment.
Taxes are high but tax paid is low with the cash economy everywhere. Greece has the highest youth unemployment under 25 years in the Eurozone at 33.1% (Feb 2022). We know of both young Greeks and refugees who have been exploited in the workplace with tragically long hours and low wages.
Refugees from the East
Greece is known for its welcome and hospitality. However, this welcome does not generally extend to refugees from the Middle East who are seen as a threat to Greek jobs and society. One Afghan friend told us that she would try and leave for Germany as soon as she got her papers as she felt that she was just a burden in Greece.
We have Iranian friends stuck in the Asylum system who have been waiting 5 years for papers, stranded without family. It has been our privilege to meet with them weekly over the last year and be family together, pray for one another, share bible stories and sometimes cry together!
East means a different approach
So how does realising that Greece is East change how we approach life here? Here are just a few things that we have recognised:
- Learning language is hard but worth it so that we can help Greeks to encounter Jesus and worship in spirit and truth in the richness of their heart language.
- Building relationships takes longer so we need to invest the time and patience and manage our own expectations of how quickly we can make real friends.
- Arrangements are last minute and spontaneous, so we need to be more flexible and open to change our plans.
- Many from the Orthodox and Muslim backgrounds are used to a priest / pupil dynamic. We are praying for that mindset to be broken by a revelation that everyone has a valuable part to play in sharing life and training others to make disciples that make disciples.
- Economic crisis has brought about real hopelessness and despair. Many can’t see a future in Greece. We would love to see businesses set up here bringing job opportunities with purpose and dignity.
- Generations of entrenched religious teaching says you have to be good to keep your salvation – the honour / shame culture is pervasive. Whether from an Orthodox or Muslim background, it’s hard to believe that God’s grace is enough and so much easier to return to works. When people here find freedom in the amazing grace of God, it is going to be ground-breaking.
As we pray for Athens and the nation of Greece, we believe it is God’s heart to pour out His grace and Holy Spirit afresh here. We can’t wait to see His Kingdom come!