Family and Social Life in Crete

The Greek Family

The family is the basic social unit of Cretan (and Greek) society, whether rural or urban. An individual who do not marry or remain separate from his or her family is quite unusual. Sons and daughters live with their families until they marry, unlike the Northern European tradition of living independently between those two stages of life.

Sometimes a young married couple may live with the parents of one spouse until they can gain financial independence. In the village tradition, the groom will take his bride to live with his parents at least for a short time. And they may remain in that house or another house in the same village, creating an extended family. Families used to play a role in the selection of a spouse although the traditional arranged marriage is rare. But the family of a potential groom would probably still consider a woman's reputation and appearance when the issue of marriage is brought forward.

According to anthropological research on Greek rural life the mothers' role in the Greek family is of great importance. The husband may act as the family's outside representative, but it is the wife who is the organizer of the household, the mediator in family disputes, and the guardian of the family's cohesiveness. Within the private sphere of the family, the opinions of the wife and mother receives great respect as she evaluates the behaviour of her husband and children and protects the family's honour.

Greek society is very coherent and the Greek family seems strong enough to support its members even at difficult times. As a result social difficulties like e.g. unemployment usually do not spawn problems like homelessness or a high criminality rate as seen elsewhere.

In Greece as elsewhere, family life has changed with the evolution of the traditional rural life into an urban / industrial system. In contemporary Greek society individuals have an increasing influence on the way in which they wish to organize their private lives and many of the aspects of social behaviour, relationships, and roles have changed, especially in the cities.

Philótimos

Still, Modern Greek society retains elements of a much more traditional set of values, such as the protection of a family's reputation. As late as 1980, an estimated two-thirds of murders or attempted murders in Greece were inspired by a male's need to uphold family honour in the face of public humiliation caused by the victim. Crete used to be notorious for its vendettas and even recently blood feuds did happen. In 1988 a feud between two families from Sfakia in South West Crete finally ended. More than 150 people had been killed since the 1940s when the vendetta started. In the village of Asigonia southwest of Rethymnon another blood feud culminated in 1994 with the apprehension of a shepherd who was hiding in the hills after having killed several members of another family in a dispute over grazing rights.

Vendettas are often the violent consequences of attacks on family honour. It has to do with the Greek concept of 'φιλότιμος' (philótimos) – a word for which there is no exact English equivalent. In the various sources where Greek nationals have tried to explain the concept of philótimos they usually stress that philótimos cannot really be understood, taught or explained. It is a concept learned solely through socialisation. You would have to be Greek to really understand it.

Literally. the word means 'friend of honour'. It is variously defined as honour, dignity, self-esteem, sense of duty, 'face', patriotism and more. It is also used commonly about a polite, well-mannered person. But in fact it is an ancient concept, traceable to the oaths of a warrior society, that exhibits elements of what anthropologists call an 'honour-shame culture'.

Today, to retain his philótimos, the Modern Greek male need not engage himself in blood feuds. But he must adhere to the implicit rules of philótimos regarding the defence of family honour, sense of dignity and obligations of manhood as these are expressed and understood in his community.

Cretan Lifestyle

The Cretan lifestyle has changed in the past decades. Notably, the living standards have improved considerably. The Cretans still live off the land, but most provide for their families in the cities and subsistence farming has more or less given way to commercial production. Nevertheless, in the rural areas you may still meet many people living traditional lives. You will still meet the shepherds with their flock in the mountains, you will still find the little old ladies dressed in black and the men in traditional 'vraka' - the long baggy trousers - black fringed kerchief and high leather boots.

Cretans pride themselves at being really good at enjoying life. And enjoying life means being outside and together. Even during the work week one finds restaurants, cafes and nightclubs packed with people intent on living life to its fullest. People sit outside, drink endless coffees, socializing and talking incessantly. Or they dress up and go for the the 'Volta' - an evening stroll with no particular aim or destination.

In the villages men will sip sweet Greek coffee in the kafeneion. Probably under the shade of a plane tree if its to be really authentic. They play noisy card games or 'Tavli' (Greek backgammon). Meanwhile the women are sitting on the shady side of the street, indulging in a good gossip while shelling peas, making lace, or embroidering.

The Cretan sense of time

Life in Crete is quite laid back. Cretans don't look at time in the same way that Northern Europeans usually do. It's a warm Mediterranean culture, so people are relaxed, and get around to things gradually. If an event is appointed to begin at 8pm, it will probably start at around 8.30 or 9pm. It's eight o'clock 'Cretan time' but it is also a state of mind that applies equally to to shrugging off a deadline as to not getting all worked up when someone is late.

So Cretans may not always be prompt but they invariably get things done. After all when philótimo is involved they don't like to look bad. And of course they have a word for that sense of time too. Or two actually. The word 'αύριο' (ávrio) translates as 'tomorrow' and 'μεθαύριο' (methavrio) as 'after tomorrow'. But what avrio really means is that something is going to happen in the next few days or weeks. Methavrio that something is going to happen even later than that, which is probably never.

The Cretans have many charming little ways of letting you know, that time is not that important. Or rather that it is but in a different way. It is important to have time to chat with someone you run into along the way. It is important to have time to 'seize the day'. Its important to have time to be friendly.

Cretan hospitality

And they are indeed friendly and hospitable. Cretans have a well-deserved reputation for treating strangers like honoured guests. Like in cafes or tavernas where it's not unusual for people to treat another group of guests - friends or strangers - to a round of drinks or something to eat. (One should however not treat them straight back - that would devalue the gift - but do so at another time).

...and the Tourists

From April through October many Cretans live in the tourist resorts along the Northern coastline of Crete working in the hurly-burly of hotels, restaurants, shops etc. catering for the many visitors. In the autumn they return to the home in the countryside to take care of the olive and wine harvest.

The Cretans seem to deal with the influx of charter tourists by living in a different time-space arrangement from the foreigners. You may hear them say, that particular places are 'for tourists'. Or when the tourists are eating early in the restaurants at the seaside resorts, the Cretans will go to the villages and have (a much better) dinner perhaps as late as 11 pm. Nightclubs may play western music until around 3 am. By then the first Greek guests arrive and the repertoire is switched to Greek music.