Greek Trees: Lessons from Baucis and Philemon

by farrah on October 31, 2014 · 4 comments

I realize that today is Halloween and I should probably be having a Halloween-y post, but let’s face it- where I am Halloween isn’t a very big deal. I did manage to do the bare minimum, and my kids being young think that’s enough, so it is. In that case, I’ll leave you with something completely different and wax poetic on how fabulously I think the Greek people have nailed the lesson from Baucis and Philemon when it comes to hospitality.

Rembrandt van Rijn - Philemon and Baucis (National Gallery of Art)

Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 The myth

As I explained in my ‘heading to Athens‘ post last week, I mentioned that I am a nut for Greek mythology. I loved to teach it to my high school students every year. Some were bored out of their minds, others had their minds blown with how cool the stories turned out. One of my all time favorites is the one about Baucis and Philemon.

As the myth goes, there was this very old couple who lived in a hovel. Unbeknownst to them, that naughty Zeus and Hermes were wandering about the countryside going door to door seeing who was following the rules of hospitality and who wasn’t. They were in disguise (of course) as lowly travelers dressed in rags. Time and time again they were turned away rudely by everyone they came across. Those with nice houses and plenty to share as well as those with meager homes. Eventually they came to the door of Baucis and Philemon who lived in a small hut built into a hill. Clearly they were very poor, but kept a cheerful home and welcomed the strange travelers in to share what they could. At the end they were  rewarded with their request to be together always even in death. The gods turned them into trees which were intertwined limb to limb. (Note: the rude people did not fare so well.)

The lesson

As many of us modern-day Game of Thrones fanatics know- there’s a guest right custom that if you break bread/salt/wine with someone in your house they can claim hospitality right (meaning they cannot be harmed). Ok, so we weren’t in danger of being killed at a wedding. But besides that, what I noticed in Athens is that this idea of hospitality still doesn’t fall far from the proverbial tree. From my airport pick up, to each cab and restaurant myself as well as my traveling companions (yes, probably goddesses in their own right) were treated with more welcome than we could have possibly have imagined. The three of us combined have quite the list of travels around the world under our belt- but we still could not get over the friendly nature of the Greek people.

Cappuccino in AthensCorner coffee shop- who gave us free bottled water with purchase. What?

Every cab we hailed, every restaurant we strolled into a sat down- people everywhere wanted to give us the best service that they could. No, we were not decked out in our conference attire, these people were just genuine and seemed to take pleasure in making us happy as visitors in their country. Cab drivers were tour guides (and only once did someone try to rip us off) who laughed at our conversations even though they professed to speak no English.

breadComplimentary chocolate bread

Restaurants gave us (yes, GAVE us) complimentary pastries to enjoy with our breakfast with profuse thank yous and enjoy! enjoy! There is something magical in the air there in Athens- I can’t explain it, but I felt it wherever we went. There’s a possibility they knew travel bloggers were invading their city. But you know what? Their friendliness was so transparent it didn’t matter. It came naturally to them and that’s how it came across to us too.

What about where we are?

So that leads me to the question: How does hospitality rank where you are? Where I am? Well, being very familiar with the US and now the NL, I can honestly say that there is a distinct difference in the feeling that what Athens held was special. It seemed ingrained in the culture- perhaps stories from the Greek myths handed down generation to generation taught people that kindness has its own reward and has since become second nature.

marathon sculpture athensGlass marathon runner sculpture– pointed out by our cabbies and transport driver

I’ve been many places back home in the States where I’ve gotten good, possibly great ‘service’. But that’s what it is- service. Sometimes we tip for that service or expect it based upon what we pay upfront. True, you might from time to time run into an amazing hairdresser or waitress- but that isn’t something I experienced that often. We grew up seeing hospitality as a business- and with the people of Athens it seemed a way of life.

With regard to the NL- I notice that there is immediately a sort of shell around a person until you speak to them and it falls away. I’m not saying that the Dutch are unfriendly or cold- not at all. But you- or I- have to first break that barrier and then they want to help, answer a question or assist a need. It’s interesting to be sure. I’ve been given help more times than I can count over here- and had some of the most pleasant interactions among the Dutch. But there remains the fact that there is just something a little bit different when I compare it to the Greek culture.

The disservice of the media

Clearly it isn’t fair to say one place is friendlier than another, I know that. I was given a snapshot of a country as I truly have only pieces of the others. But I cannot deny this feeling that I had in Athens. Some might say it’s out of their desperation to get out of the financial crisis and draw tourists back to Greece. I say that’s not possible on such a scale. You cannot ingrain hospitality and genuine kindness in a people so easily. It’s something else. Perhaps my preconceived ideas about Greece were warped by the media and twisted (probably) based on what I ‘knew’ from the news (most likely). What I saw wasn’t a crumbling infrastructure or desperate populace looking to steal every euro I had in my pocket. Maybe things are a bit messed up in the government- but who has a government that isn’t?

athens restaurantRestaurant with local music, patrons encouraged to dance

In any case, Athens is as beautiful as the history is ancient. I think their culture and their ways go back to a time so long ago it makes my head spin. Not such a bad thing, when you think about it. Maybe it’s all that fresh air coming out of the trees.

Nothing sponsored- this post is written post TBEX and my introduction to Athens. I wrote it because I wanted to share my thoughts on what I saw and experienced first- hand. I was by no means asked, paid, or required to do so.  A heartfelt thank you to the City of Athens for being such wonderful ambassadors for the country of Greece. 

All photos by me except as noted.



{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gayla October 31, 2014 at 10:05 pm

What a great post, Farrah. I’m so glad you enjoyed Athens and have such positive things to share about the city. I do believe, based on my experiences with my friends from Greece now living in NL, that hospitality is inherent in the people 🙂


2 Marsha/Oma November 1, 2014 at 1:49 am

Very nice post!


3 Dede May 5, 2016 at 6:44 pm

I haven’t been to Greece yet, but I know exactly what you are talking about!
There is definitely a difference between good service for tips that come with a fake smile and genuine desire to please for the simple pleasure of enjoying it.
Your post made me go visit Greece even more!


4 Maria Anagnostopoulou December 15, 2016 at 6:42 pm

Oh what a psyche life saving post for us Athenians! Its so sad to see our beloved Athens falling in pieces bit by bit. Perhaps therefore we developed extra strong in feelings to other people. Greeks were of course always hospitable. Do you remember Homer’s Odyssey? They first bathed him, clothed him, fed him and then at last asked for his name. In Crete and other islands is still this custom alive. A grandmother washed first my hair and then asked about my name. A fisherman gave me water to drink, a shop owner offered me a chair in the shadow and an ice cream for free. Holly hospitality! Many many thanks for your post!


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