When in Greece, do as the Greeks do

For the Greeks, British tourists are like a dinner guest who gets drunk, sick and has sex on the table
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The Independent Online

The British holidaymakers and reps who have been arrested by the Greek police in Rhodes have expressed an astonishment which seems entirely genuine.

The British holidaymakers and reps who have been arrested by the Greek police in Rhodes have expressed an astonishment which seems entirely genuine. Their drunken misbehaviour, including sexual acts in public, either spontaneous or staged for the benefit of an appreciative audience, didn't seem to them so very wrong. A girl was arrested for exposing her breasts in public, and it is fair to say that she is most surprised. Underlying all this is the single conviction, or mitigating circumstance: Well, we're on holiday, innit? The question which one wants to ask them in return is this: where, exactly, did you think you had gone on holiday?

My tales of Greek drunkenness are not quite like this, but they are enough to make me understand very clearly the big mistake these people have made in choosing Rhodes for their festivities. A year or two back, a friend and I were travelling through the Peloponnese and stopped for the night in a most beautiful and remote village, deep in Arcadia.

The village had one guest-house, and, attached to it, a little taverna: both very simple, but clean and pleasant. It was the sort of place in Greece where there is no menu: they simply invite you into the kitchen, and you point at what you want. "And," I said to the owner, who spoke some English, "could we have a bottle of white wine?"

He gazed at me in astonishment. "A bottle of wine?" I confirmed what I'd said, not quite guessing the cause of his surprise. "Do you know," he asked kindly, "how big a bottle of wine is?"

My friend and I promised that if it proved too big to drink between us - we hadn't heard of these gigantic Arcadian bottles, but who knew? - we wouldn't feel obliged to finish it. Satisfied, he brought one over: it was, of course, exactly the normal size, and somehow the two of us managed to get through it.

Earlier this year, something rather more humiliating happened. I'd gone to Greece for two weeks to get on with a novel; first on a very quiet island, and then for a week back in the Peloponnese. As I was writing, and also because I was on my own, I didn't really drink anything at all for two weeks. The last night, however, I was in Athens, and went out for dinner with my friend, that excellent novelist Alexis Stamatis. I forgot, ordering the meal, that Alexis doesn't drink, and casually asked for a bottle of wine.

In normal circumstances, in London, I could probably drink a bottle of wine in an evening, and the worst it would do would be to induce me to tell some appallingly indiscreet story.

That night, however, I was about two-thirds of the way through the bottle when I realised that I was repulsively drunk. The heat, the fact that I was tired, and my two weeks of clean living combined disastrously; and I was, as Sloane Rangers used to say, hogwhimpering. We were having dinner in a very cool and trendy quarter of Athens, something like Soho, and every street was lined with bars and restaurants, their customers not tourists but the mobile-wielding young rich of the town.

Nevertheless, as we left the restaurant and went to a rooftop bar, it was obvious to me that it was not very much like Soho: nobody at all here, although it was late on a Friday night, was even slightly drunk. As I stumbled up the stairs to the bar, hanging on to the banister as if it were my oldest friend, I realised that even in this trendy, cosmopolitan crowd, people were looking at me with distaste and disapproval. I had a Coca-Cola, and slunk back to the hotel in shame.

Of course, it would not be true at all to suggest that Greeks don't drink. In some places, their habitual drinking is on a much larger scale than anything contemplated by British holiday reps. If you stop at a village in the Mani, say, it is not at all unusual to see a group of men at half past 10 in the morning, already getting towards the bottom of a bottle of ouzo and thinking about getting another one; not for any particular reason, but simply because that's what they do between getting up and going home for an afternoon sleep. Most Mediterranean cultures don't drink: very few Italians would think of spending an evening in a bar, and think a single bottle of wine is plenty at a table of four or even six.

Greeks are not necessarily like that, but their drinking, even on an ambitious scale, is completely different in its consequences to the kind of excess exhibited by their British visitors. The crucial point is that their culture, in all circumstances, places an extremely high value on personal dignity. Those men soaking themselves in ouzo probably drink, every day, more than I've ever drunk in my life, but you will never see one of them drop their trousers, vomit in the street or even fall over. It would be a matter of inconceivable shame.

The second point is that there is no concept in Greek culture of a drunk woman: in the older generation, or in more rural areas, because of the restrictions placed on women's lives; in younger, more urban circles, it is because nobody, men or women, drinks so heavily. It was noticeable, when we ordered that bottle in Arcadia, that the patron's incredulity was chiefly directed towards my (female) friend. A woman who gets drunk and then bares her breasts to passers-by, or performs oral sex in public, is just outside any Greek conception of what is possible.

Thirdly, ingrained in the Greek character is a notion of hospitality, and this extends, at some level, to seeing tourists as guests. If you imagine inviting someone to dinner who gets drunk, exposes herself, is sick on the floor and then has sex on the table, you have a sense of what many Greeks think about this behaviour in their towns.

The sad fact is that with the huge expansion of tourism, many visitors have no real appreciation of the fact that they are in a foreign country, where behaviour may not be quite the same as in England. If you behave as you would in England, and no worse, you may cause some amusement or even mild offence; in many Islamic countries, a man in shorts looks to the locals as if he is wandering around in his underwear, and I once caused great offence at a wedding in Calcutta by lighting a cigarette while talking to the bride's grandmother.

Ordinary, civilised English behaviour may cause difficulties. And this sort of thing is not ordinary English behaviour. I doubt very much that these people would think of doing these things in their home towns, even at their most drunk: there is no doubt, either, of the general reaction if a group of Greek tourists behaved like this in the streets of Brighton, say. And yet the responses of the holidaymakers and club reps, on being arrested, were quite genuine in their total incredulity.

They simply didn't see that they had done anything wrong. You could ask them politely whether they would have oral sex in their local pub, and they would say no. You could ask them whether they thought that this was ordinary behaviour in Greek society, and they would, unless they were exceptionally stupid, agree that it was not.

There is only one conclusion that we can reach; these people were under the impression that they were going nowhere in particular on holiday, or perhaps to a place called Holiday Island. There is no such place: there are only places with their own culture and history. Their own styles of prisons, too, you may be interested to discover.