Visitors to the Greek islands will soon notice that the Greek way of life is entirely different from that at home. The first hint will probably be the relaxed Greek attitude to timekeeping. They have a motto – do tomorrow what you can do today – and this easy-going approach to life fits in well with the tourist on holiday.
The unhurried Greek seems to enjoy life, and this is nowhere more apparent than at the regular religious festivals when a whole island can turn out to enjoy the street celebrations.
Greeks are also very hospitable, especially to strangers. They have a word for it – 'filoxenia', although it means more than just being friendly.
It means 'love of strangers', and it may result in getting invited to a Greek family celebration and being offered the best food and wine in the house. Greeks take great pride in generosity to strangers, and it is what can define a Greek island holiday although it is getting increasingly rare as tourist numbers rise. You are much more likely to find it in the smaller, less-travelled Greek islands.
If you don't have the cash to pay for a taverna meal you will be told to 'pay tomorrow'; if it rains (unusual), you may be offered an umbrella to return when you are next passing.
The family is also significant to Greek culture. Sons usually stay at home until they are married. Mothers tend to dote on sons, especially when they are young. Men rarely help with the running of the household, and many will be found in the local cafe, especially early in the morning before going to work.
The climate plays its part too. Days start early, before it gets too hot, and afternoons can be taken up with a siesta from 2 pm – 5 pm. Greeks will often return to work from 5 pm – 8 pm. They also eat late – usually after 10 pm – and families with children can often be seen enjoying a taverna meal after midnight. In this way, the Greeks manage to pack two days into one.
Exchanging money on the Greek Islands
Years ago Greek holidays were among the cheapest in the Mediterranean. Now Greece is in the Eurozone and prices are on a par with those in the UK.
No other currency than the euro is accepted and it is best to exchange currency at a bank or any money exchange kiosk. Take care over the commission charges on changing money in Greece as they can vary widely. The money exchange rate is the same throughout Greece and banks, or official exchange shops should offer the daily going rate for the euro.
Euro coins come in eight denominations: 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents.
Banknotes come in denominations: 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 notes.
Commission rates on changing money at some airports can be very high (they often have to pay expensive rents). If you must change money at the airport it is probably best to get just enough to last a couple of days until you can get to a bank.
Banks in Greece are usually open 8 am – 2.30 pm Monday to Thursday and 8 am – 2 pm on Friday. Greek Island banks usually close over the weekend. Banks on larger Greek islands do tend to stay open later the afternoon and some will offer currency exchange facilities in the evening during the tourist season.
The worst place to exchange money is often a hotel as transaction rates can be very high indeed. It is a good idea to always have some cash on hand if you are island hopping in the Greek Islands. You can use a cash card on ATMs but rates can be high, and it is not unknown for Greek cash machines to run out of money, especially on the less travelled islands. Some Greek islands only have cash machines in the main town.
There are no restrictions on the import or export of currency, but you must declare sums over €10,000 or equivalent if you are travelling outside the European Union. All the major currencies are widely accepted at banks, but extra charges can be applied to currencies other than pounds sterling. Credit cards are widely accepted in shops, stores and restaurants located in the principal resorts, but if you are travelling to more remote villages, you are advised to take some cash with you.
Greek medical services
Citizens of EU countries can obtain a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which replaces the old E111 form in the UK. This entitles the holder to free state-provided medical treatment, but it won't cover the cost of medicines or nursing. The form is widely accepted, but it is vital to get proper travel insurance, keep receipts and claim when you get back.
Despite their small populations, many Greek islands have a health centre. Young trainee doctors are often posted there for our equivalent of an intern year and are usually very good and, most importantly, often speak excellent English – so you can explain what is wrong without an embarrassing pantomime.
Pharmacies are also a good place to visit for common ailments. Pharmacists in Greece are very often highly trained and can offer excellent medical help and advice for free. Again there is usually someone there who speaks excellent English. Medications can be more expensive than in Britain.
Care in Greek hospitals has much improved in recent years and is now generally very good too. But note that nurses will only perform medical duties – they will not look after you as the proverbial angels do in British hospitals, you are expected to take care of yourself ill or not. On the islands, of course, you won't get to the hospital without a boat trip.
Greeks love concrete. They pour the stuff everywhere, usually very poorly. Wet cement is tamped down with old bits of wood and the result – an uneven, unsightly mess.
As long ago as 1997 the government clamped down on the shoddy and indiscriminate building, but it was already 20 years too late to save many streets from breeze block squalor. It can be seen everywhere.
Take care on the street too. Repairs are often unfenced, kerbs can perch 20cm above the road, and concrete steps can vary enormously. You get used to it, but beware – most holiday accidents happen in the first 24 hours (well before you get used to it).
No Greek street scene would be complete without an unfinished building on the go. Houses are often left half finished, some for years at a time. Builders may turn up from time to time for a brief flurry of cement mixing, but then they leave the half-built homes for weeks, months, even years,
Landscapes of such beauty that leave the rest of us gasping in wonder are seen by the Greeks as nothing more than a thumping good site for tipping a load of old junk. There is a hillside in Kefalonia that is awash with forgotten washing machines, coolers and fridges and a seaside cliff site in Paros that looks like a demolition junkyard.
Roadside verges on the islands are almost everywhere covered in litter. Plastic bags are the most popular, but cans, bottles and nylon rope are not without their followers. In towns and villages, you will find roadside bins surrounded by bottles, boxes and bags.
The biggest litter dumps of all are often the beaches and the sea. Plastic bags bob along like shoals of jellyfish and bottles, cans and nail-riddled driftwood are a common sight.
I am not one to argue that chain link fencing does not have its place in the modern world. Military installations, industrial compounds, dangerous mine shafts and poisoned wasteland all need protection from interlopers and its crude ugliness may be a price worth paying for making such sites secure. Not in Greece.
Greeks throw up chain link fencing anywhere and everywhere it is bent, rusting, broken and utterly ineffective for its original purpose (whatever that may have been). The stuff just lies around in a purposeless sprawl.
There is a historic coastal site at Alyki in Thassos of astonishing natural beauty that boasts the ruins of some of the earliest Christian basilicas. It also harbours a concentration camp labyrinth of ten-foot-high rusty chain link fencing, the only purpose of which appears to be to keep visitors off the ruins.