In Greece, 'I want to know' means 'I care'

Living long-term in a foreign country requires give and take. Some things are easier to take than others, however. The inquisitiveness of Greeks ranks high on the Top 10 list of complaints by foreign residents here.

One tries not to generalize, but let's face it: Greeks are a curious group. No matter where you go, people don't hesitate to strike up a conversation, state their opinion, or ask any question that pops into their heads. It might sound like simple friendliness, but this inquisitiveness is often disconcerting to those unaccustomed to it. Strangers have asked me questions that I wouldn't ask my own siblings.

When I was first learning Greek, however, I found all the questions great language practice. Once while waiting for a take-out pizza, the cashier asked me everything from what my father did for a living to how much rent I paid to what I thought of Greek men. Taxi drivers were especially talkative and constantly asked personal questions. They never hesitated to give advice, either. I remember one driver asked me if I was married. I replied that I was thinking about it. He said, "Don't think too much or you'll never do it."

Sometimes, though, it seems there are no personal boundaries - nothing is too private to ask. One lady I bumped into at the supermarket asked me, "What are those red spots on your face?" I won't even mention how many times I've been asked how much I earn.

When I moved from Athens to Arta, my husband's small hometown in western Greece, the inquisitiveness was even more intense. I was one of only a few foreigners living here, so curiosity about me was understandable, but sometimes annoying. By then, my Greek was quite good, so I didn't care for the language practice anymore. I began to find polite ways to avoid answering.

One neighbor man always used to ask, "Where are you going?" every time he saw me. I discovered that if I smiled and answered, "Kalimera!" (Good morning!) he wouldn't continue the questioning.

I also found the neighbors' desire for details exasperating. If the postman brought a package, they would ask what was in it and who had sent it. If I came home from shopping, they would ask what I had bought. And every day, without fail, at least one person would ask, "What are you having for lunch today?"

Especially annoying to me was their habit of asking the price of anything and everything. No matter what I bought - from a pair of shoes or a handbag to a rug or an armchair, the first comment would inevitably be "How much did it cost?"

As the years have passed, I've grown accustomed to close contact with the neighbors. I have even grown to like the over-the-fence conversations I now have regularly. When I recently visited an English friend who had just moved into the neighborhood, her landlady started asking me the usual questions. Afterward, my friend apologized for my having to go through the third degree. The thought finally occurred to me (after 15 years in Greece) that the landlady actually cared. She really wanted to know about the people living in her apartment house and neighborhood. Her interest wasn't prying, but a genuine desire to know us.

When you look at it that way, belonging to an interested and caring community is No. 1 on the list of reasons to stay in Greece.

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