Cultural differences are evident in the way we dress, the food we eat (and how we eat it), the construction of our houses, and the religion we practice. But they also reveal themselves in more subtle ways, like the tale below demonstrates.

Taking public transit instead of private cars or taxis actually teaches you a lot about the local culture. This week, as I reminisce about the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) conference in Athens last October, I’m also reminded of this incident on the bus from the airport, right after I landed in the city late on the evening of October 19.

Athens at night

It had been a rather hard day, with my first flight from Malaga to Barcelona being delayed by two hours, and some growing uncertainty as to whether I would be able to make my connection to Athens. I was tired. All I wanted to do is get to my AirBnB accommodation as quickly as possible and rest.

The plan was to take the metro from the airport to the Megaro Moussikis station and then walk 10 minutes from there to the apartment, following detailed directions and a map I had printed months before.

When I tried buying my metro ticket however, the clerk refused to sell me one! She explained dismissively that the metro had a “problem” and that I had to take bus X95. Great. The guy at the airport info desk told me where to find X95 (although he didn’t seem to believe me when I said that the metro wasn’t running) and he added that the bus stopped “very close” to the Megaro Moussikis station. “Ask the driver” he said waving me away.

When I boarded the bus, it was so crowded that my luggage and I were immediately surrounded by a tight crowd. It was standing room only. I decided that I couldn’t ride that way for 45 minutes, so I pushed my way out and waited 20 minutes for the next bus.

This time, I was able to get a seat, but it looked like it was going to be as packed as the previous one. Of course all the people who couldn’t take the metro were now on the bus! I had no idea how I could ever walk through this sea of people and ask the driver anything. So I just sat and sulked. And that’s when it happened: a woman with a whiny baby walked in. The baby started crying really loudly. I rolled my eyes. “Ha gawd,” I thought “45 minutes of this?”. And then it got worse: the lady sitting next to me gracefully gave her seat to the mother and baby.

Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens

I’m not normally a rude person but…

I plugged my ears. Forget appearing rude; I just wanted to preserve my hearing and my sanity! The bus started moving.

Now if this had been a bus in a large Canadian or American city, you would have expected most people to look annoyed or uncomfortable, trying to ignore the situation by staring at their shoes or their phone, sighting and waiting for the ordeal to pass. But not this Greek crowd. (Most passengers looked Greek – the visitors had probably given up and taken a taxi to their hotel.)

Every time the baby started crying, a stranger nearby would try to distract her by tickling her toes, waving something at her, or making cooing sounds. She would stop crying for a bit while everybody else on the bus, even those poor bastards without a seat, would look at this with an affectionate, almost tender expression on their faces, as if to say “how cute is this?”. Unbelievable. But then the baby would start screaming again and I would plug my ears again, until the next stranger tried her luck. Yes, this went on non-stop for 45 minutes.

It was dark, I couldn’t see a thing through the windows, and I had no idea where I was anyway. I figured that I could always ride the bus to the end of the route at Syntagma Square and backtrack, taking a cab if the metro still wasn’t running.

Fortunately the crowd thinned enough that I was able to stumble to the front and ask the driver for my stop… which was just coming up! And so I found myself on the curb with my luggage in the cool night air (it was passing 11 PM by then), still not knowing exactly where I was, but what a relief to be rid of that baby!

And so, even though I had been in Greece for less than two hours, I had already learned something interesting about the Greeks. They were obviously patient, indulgent, good-hearted, and practical people. (Watch the video below for another example of Athenians’ patience!)

This was further confirmed by the last part of my ordeal which consisted in orienting myself in the dark, without a proper map, and finding my apartment. Many times I had to ask people on the street: a souvlaki stand worker, a security guard, a convenient store clerk. Even though they only seemed to know their immediate surroundings (within 300 metres or so), they were all eager to help me and provided me with as much information as they each had.

The last person I asked actually escorted me a couple of blocks to make sure I found the apartment. I’m still surprised at the number of people out on the street this late on a Sunday. If the city had been Toronto instead of Athens, I’m honestly not sure how well I would have fared!

Monastiraki Square, Athens

Monastiraki Square: people to help you at all hours of day and night

(A shorter version of this article appeared in BigTravelNut’s newsletter #17 in November 2014.)

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