Later that summer, as I sat sipping treacle-black elleniko coffee at a kafenion overlooking Sitia’s seagull-serenaded harbour, my friend’s words were confirmed by an irate Dutch tourist. “Why are the shops closed until 5pm? These Greeks are so lazy – always sleeping!” he fumed as if – as a fellow foreigner – I would surely empathise.
I explained that most Greeks work from 8am to 2pm and then – after that much-needed siesta – they start a whole new day of work, often ploughing through until 10 or 11 at night. “You call that working?” he bellowed indignantly. “They are always standing in shop doorways talking – how can they be working when they always have their friends and children wandering in and out?!”
When I told this to Kosta, the tavern owner, he stared at me in disbelief. “Einai trelos? Is he crazy? I work long hours – it’s important for me to leave a thriving business to my children, but my family works with me and my clients are my friends. I like to make money but I also like to enjoy my life, what’s wrong with that?”
A few evenings later I got chatting with Stelios, who owns a café high on the Lasithi plateau. As the imperative slap and rattle of tavli (backgammon) tokens rang from tables around us and sugar odours of custard-cake bougatsa – mingled with country smells of feta and goat – filled the air, he told me his life story.
Like many other islanders, Stelios was a victim of the poverty that dogged Greece before tourism brought money into the country in the Eighties and Nineties. Forced to find work overseas, he left Crete when he was 16 years old and travelled the world for 20 years as a sailor. During that time he married a local girl and had two children, but for 15 years he only saw his family twice a year. “They were grown-ups when I finally had enough money to return home and buy my cafe,” he told me.
I asked Stelios what he thought about the label ‘lazy Greeks’. He laughed a shade bitterly. “I worked overseas for years without seeing my family or my children, do I sound like a lazy man? Do you want to know what I think?”
He spread his arms wide. “Here in Greece we everything we need – we have blue skies, clean seas and healthy food. These people calling us lazy? They’re just jealous.”