“All Cretans are liars.” St. Paul confirmed this observation in one of his epistles. Well, he would do, because when he tried to land in Crete to propagate his twisted version of the Christian gospel, the natives had the good sense to beat him back into the water with long sticks. It was a grumbling St. Paul who climbed into his boat and sailed for Corinth, where he got a better reception and an audience sympathetic to vitriolic condemnation of the Cretans.
The trouble is, St. Paul wasn’t the first to observe the slippery nature of Cretan testimony. All that “Cretans are liars” stuff was first said by Epimenides the Cretan, which starts by putting Truth in its proper place.
It might just as well have been said of the Greeks in general. They are a nation of liars: brilliant liars, spectacular liars, breathtaking liars. And anyone who calls me racist for saying so is also a liar. It is probably this capacity, nay, this quality, which makes the Greeks among my favourite people on this earth. Yes, yes, we British are liars too, we’re just not so honest about it. We are sneaky liars, political liars (‘Your new haircut really suits you”, and “Economic recovery is just around the corner’, and “HM Government hereby guarantees the constitution of Cyprus”). We actually expect the other person to believe our deceptions, whereas with the Greeks a good fabrication is simply an invitation to open up a negotiation on the nature of reality itself. You have to think of it like bargaining in a market place. A proffered lie is simply an opening price: you’re not expected to accept it.
Greeks are proud of their ability to lie. It’s in the culture and goes right back to the wily Odysseus, the champion trickster who achieved everything he did by brilliant deception and subtlety of mind. The moment you let your British jaw drop at the enormity of some Aegean whopper, you’ve lost a couple of points. The only way to play it is the Greek way, and after living in Greece for a year or so I started to get the hang of things.
I’d made the mistake of telling my landlord how happy I was with the beautiful house (House of Lost Dreams) he’s rented me. “Paradise”, I cooed. “Perfect. Wonderful.” I wanted to make him happy by showing how pleased I was with the arrangement. Wrong. He came back the next day wanting to raise the rent.
‘The currency fluctuations”, he declared, waving an arm in the direction of the Olympian Gods.
“Currency? What’s that got to do with it? Anyway the Drachma went up in relation to the pound!”
“Up? Down? What can we do? We all lose.”
“See that bucket of jellyfish? Go stick your lying head in it.”
He wasn’t happy with that. The next day he confiscated the oars to my rowing boat ‘They need repairs. We don’t have a license. The oars are too long. The harbourmaster disapproves. There’s a storm coming. You can see the oars are too short. The boat has a hole, It has to be painted this time of year...” and so on, until a struggle for the oars ensued during which a dinner plate got broken.
I charged the landlord a pound to replace the broken plate, which he grudgingly stumped up. The fact that he actually owned the plate in question was overlooked. Then a rent rise of 25p per week was negotiated, and since I hadn’t told him I only planned to stay for another month anyway, I looked at the oars and he looked at the broken plate and we shook hands on that.
Not all Greek lies are motivated by avarice, I hasten to add. Sometimes Greek kindness and sympathy means that they just can’t bear to tell you what you don’t want to hear.
“I desperately need to go to Piraeus tomorrow. Is there a ferry?”
They stroke your arm; their eyes water with sympathy for you. ‘Yes, yes. Don’t worry. There will be a ferry.”
You’ve guessed it. Even at the best of times Greek ferry timetables are more speculative than the adventures of Odysseus. They’re the most unreliable documents in the world, printed on paper which erupts into flame or on which the ink dissolves after you’ve booked your ticket. “Better to have a ferry and no ticket”, one contemporary Socrates counseled me, “than to have a ticket and no ferry.”
I forgot to extend the permit for my car while I was on Crete. I went to the -Customs official, who told me I would have big problems with the police.
‘What can I do?”
“Lie to them,” he suggested. "They’re fools.” He carefully constructed an elaborate lie I should tell the police about being out of the country by plane, thereby missing the automobile exit visas etc., etc. It made my head swim.
I went to the police. “Never mind all that”, said the police official. ‘We’ll just lie and backdate the visa.” He fiddled with the date on his rubber stamp for my passport.
‘What about the customs people?”
“Lie to them. They’re all fools up there. This is what you should tell them...”
The best one happened while I was toiling for a few drachmae in the orange groves. I had to fertilize the young trees by slinging nitrate powder around the base of the trunks. Orange trees are grown in serried rows, and I had the misfortune of being partnered by my employer.
Greeks are terrible employers. They're not happy unless they see you break sweat. This fertilizing job involved filling a wheelbarrow with nitrate and walking back and forth from the trees to fill a one-litre peach can with the stuff to spread around the trees. My employer, Michaelis, was anxious that I keep up with him and work at his pace.
Only one problem: he had a TWO-litre peach can against my one-litre can. He could sprinkle two trees to my every one.
- “Queek! Queek!” he squealed at me. ‘You must keep up with me! We don haf all day for thees! Queek! Queek!”
I was astonished. Did he honestly think I hadn’t noticed? I marched over and snatched the two-litre can, gave him mine and invited him to keep up with ME. Then I took it at a clip. Jog-jog, sprinkle sprinkle. Jog-jog, sprinkle sprinkle. “Come on!” I bellowed at him. “Let’s get the job done! Keep up! Keep up! No slacking there!”
And the silly bastard actually tried to keep up with me. He was trapped. If he protested, he would have lost face by admitting that he’d tried to trick me. He had to go through with it, pretending he’d overlooked the difference in can sizes. It was a hot day, and after half an hour, caked in sweat, dust and silver nitrate fertilizer he sank to his knees, panting furiously. Well, I was in no mood to let him off the hook. “Quick!” I bellowed in his ear. “Quick!”
“I afen’t been well”, he whined. “I af a bad wrist. I twist my ankle yesterday. I af the flu. I was up all night nursing my seek mother...”
He paid me off after that and hired a Yugoslav.
It must be obvious by now that I hate the Greeks. That’s why I keep going back there time after time, to hate them some more. Though I must say that after living in Greece for over a year I got to be able to lie just like them and with admirable style. I had a great time, drinking ouzo and lying my head off. A thoroughly liberating experience. For anyone interested I recommend a package holiday, starting with a few fibs over a dish of olives, building up gradually to whoppers and Greek dancing. It is but a short path to proficient dissembling.
More importantly, you'll eventually get round to considering it a virtue.