Greece is teaching me “philotimo”… an unfathomable kindness

I’m drawn to Greece. I’ve spent a lot of time here. I keep coming back to absorb the incredibly kind energy of this raw, honest, story-steeped land. For, when I do, this energy seeps into me and I become a better person for it.

Greece and Greeks have many lessons to teach me. As I was once told (in Ikaria), Greece either catches you, or spits you out. There are many lessons in this alone…

But let’s chat about philotomo

It technically means “love of honour”. Except as a lecturer in Ancient Greek philology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, told the BBC recently,

“The word cannot be translated precisely to any other language. All the same, philotimo has become one of the building blocks of the Greek disposition.”

It’s no surprise there is no translation for this word. It’s really only comprehensible, and lived out, by the Greeks. It is Greek to the core.

I’d describe it as a type of kind generosity, one that I am stunned to experience every time I’m here.  As I wrote on Instagram:

Philotimo: It’s grace without strings. It’s human without individualism. It’s risk with heart.

Not a day goes by here when I don’t experience philotimo.

When I hitchhike (which I first did here at 18), philotimo dictates that, far from feeling imposed upon, Greeks are thrilled to be able to pick me up. They relish the opportunity to help a fellow human out.

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When I arrive home to my four-villa village here in Crete, all (eight) neighbours (that’s their joints viewed from my balcony above) come to greet me and see that I’m OK (speaking in full-throttle Greek, opining on the best thing for my welfare and some such).

At tavernas the waitress will slip me an extra fig; the waiter insists on giving me a wine for free. Sometimes he’ll sit and join me. They do this nod-blink-of-the-eyes thing that says, “It should be this way”.

When I got bitten by a dog last week, the gnarly old shepherd who owns the dog, two days later, follows me home up a goat track late at night and insists, awkwardly in the dark, on giving me a lift up the track on his motorbike. He has tears in his eyes. He’s trying to say sorry…by giving kindness.

When I’m sad and frantic, there’s always a Greek in my day who will simply give me one of those nod-blinks. Or a touch to the elbow. Or to my chest. When I was in Ikaria there was an old farmer – Elias – who would always be there (eerily) at the gate waiting for me to arrive at the taverna. He’d park my moped for me and walk me to my table, hold my shoulder and say, “kala”. And walk away.

But here’s my most recent story.

It unfurled in Crete with Giorgos. That’s him below. I got up early to catch a bus to Samaria Gorge to do the epic 5-6 hour hike from up high, down to the ocean. I discover at the end of the 90-minute ride to the start that the entry fee for the park was 5€. Cash. I’ve not had a working ATM card for three weeks (another comical story), ergo no cash. I’m stuck. So I make my way to the entry gate, totally trusting that something will work out. It tends to in Greece. I’ve become confidently reliant on this.

I’m explaining my predicament to the burly dude in charge of collecting tickets when Giorgos appears. “This is her ticket,” he says. He’d heard me at the ticket stall. And philotomo was his default position.

“You made me laugh. You spun around, put on your cap and marched off like you were going to sort everyone out,” he said. Ha! Sums me up.


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We spent the next 12 hours together.

Me: Laughing at his laptop bag that he’d brought by way of hiking pack (?!), bulging with ridiculous accoutrements and foil-wrapped sandwiches, which he insisted on splitting with me.

Him: Sharing his philosophies on life and politics and marriage (his to his girlfriend) and destiny.

Me: Being unusually relaxed as myself. Perfectly me.

Us: Listening to Cretan music on his iphone – an earpiece each – on the ferry back to the bus at sunset.

Me (in a letter to him the next day): Dearest Giorgos, I had such a great day today. Your kindness – philotimo – from this morning will stay with me a long time.

Him (in reply): Dear Sarah, It wasn’t generosity. You give out positive energy and therefore it was all your work. I am sure you gonna find what you really seek to those adventures you dive in and then, you ‘ll get relaxed with that love you find at the surface. Because you will wrap one (Greek?) eventually and he is gonna regret the years that have past without knowing you. But he’ll be there for you. [Every Greek is convinced I should marry a Greek man – Sarah.] The act I made today, that kindness you say, pass it over to others.

More stuff you need to know about philotimo

Giorgos and I broke it down as we hiked. I’ve done the same with several other Greeks in the past week. Here’s what I’ve learned…

It can seem similar to “karma”. But it’s more noble, kinder. It’s not motivated by a sense that you’ll be compensated for a kind act later. No. Instead, it stems from a recognition that you’ve already been looked after, and you’re grateful, and so you feel obliged – a responsibility, a desire – to give to another, often a stranger.

Actually “obliged” is too strong. Indeed, the sentiment that I heard over and over – it’s an “honour” to help.

As yoga teacher Panos (I went to his beautiful class overlooking the ocean recently) wrote on my instagram feed, “Philotomo is not a word, it’s a lifestyle”.

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A guy at a wonderful Cretan concert I went to told me, “You grow up this way, you get taught it’s important from when you’re a child.”

There’s no jingoism around it. The Greeks don’t wear philotimo as a badge of honour, adding it to advertising slogans. That’s not the essence of it. And this makes it all the more beautiful. And appropriately humble.

The history is interesting…

I read this in the BBC article (paraphrased):

Philotimo emerged as a particularly Greek thing in parallel with the emergence of democracy in classical Athens around the 4th and 5th Centuries BC. During this time competition was replaced with co-operation. Then, in the High Middle Ages, when the Greeks were enslaved by Ottoman rulers and had to revert to subsistence living, it was further entrenched into the land, the people. Says the expert I quoted earlier:

“While the West was developing modern states that tied together individuals under the rule of law and an abstract sense of responsibility, the subjugated and inward-looking Greeks were bound by pride, localism and interpersonal relationships.”

It played out again during WWll when the impoverished, starved Cretans infamously risked the death penalty to rescue and hide British and Australian soldiers.

And it’s surfaced once more in the wake of the refugee crises in Kos, which saw Greek locals simply help the Syrians with whatever limited resources they had. Three locals received Noble Peace Prizes for their philotimo-motivated efforts, which contrasted tragically with images we saw in the press of British tourists sunbaking while drowned children washed to shore.

One of the Kos locals – a fisherman who went out every day to rescue fellow humans, foregoing income – told media:

“We may not return with our nets full of fish, but our hearts are warm.”

As I finish writing this post in a café in Crete, an older Greek lady sits next to me and we talk about …Greece. She’s travelled a lot and has lived in Canada and Australia, and beyond. We talk about how Greece can change a person. Is it the philotimo, I ask.

“I think it’s the country, the place, not just the people. The land does something to all people. But for some it spits them out.”

She adds:

“But if you have the desire to return to the right ways, the ways of the past, of our nature, the philotimo will happen.”

This is why I keep coming back. My grandest, most important aspiration is to have more philotimo seep through my hiking feet into my being and outward to the world. Walking on Greek earth does this, kindly, generously.

This was a long post. But I hope it was worth it. It truely is a topic that’s transformative for me.

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