Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Athens Portraits: Touristas Gormless

There's a certain kind of visitor to Greece that seems to be under the impression that a brain is not essential for travel.

There's no mistaking them as they mill around the shops in Plaka or the slopes of the hill on which the Acropolis stands.

Often found in herds, they are clearly distinguishable from the native species due to the bright scarlet markings on the head shoulders and arms. They seek out pools of blazing sunlight while the resident species hide in the shade, and (when in large packs) have a distinctive braying cry that resembles that of a pack of stranded sealions. Some varieties also carry multiple cans of luke-warm beer, in preference to the plastic bottles of water favoured by the locals.

Their scientific name is Touristas Gormless, and though there are many sub-species, there is one characteristic they all share. For some reason that remains a mystery to science, they are totally clueless.

In their native habitat, they may be highly accomplished businessmen, educators, professionals or self-made men (and women). But once they set foot on Greek soil, a mystifying transformation takes place. The eyes glaze over, and the thought processes are disengaged, as they switch from 'real life rat-race' to 'holiday stand-by' mode. Their plumage changes from sombre neutrals to brightly coloured shorts, vests and (in extreme cases) straps of fabric that sadly leave little to the imagination. Footwear varies from sandals with socks to fragile strappy high-heels that snap easier than a dry twig in the Attica sun.

What experts believe is behind this strange metamorphosis is the effects of anticipation, fuelled by stereotypical images they have been force-fed by the media in their homeland that depict Greece as a Land That Time Forgot - a place populated by charming but slightly inferior locals, where everyone spends the afternoon on the beach or sipping ouzo at a seaside bar, and transport still relies largely on donkeys and carts.

Hence their surprise (and shock) when they arrive at Athens International Airport (much shinier, newer and – dare I say it? – more efficient than Heathrow, Gatwick or Luton). More shocks await as they arrive in the city centre to see thousands of brand new cars whizzing around the streets, and a network of (mostly clean) Underground stations to get them around. Disappointment often follows with the realisation that there is no beach next to the Acropolis and there aren’t any sunbeds for hire in Syntagma Square.

They've heard all the warnings about the dangers of the sun, and obey the instructions religiously in their natural habitat. But on foreign soil, it is all forgotten as they believe that 'drink plenty of water' equates to 'have a cup of tea followed by a couple of lagers'. And while some start off their fortnight slapping on Factor 60, after a couple of days many are down to Factor 2 or even straight Baby Oil and are proudly showing off their 'tan' while the locals wince at the sight of their raw, red shoulders and rapidly peeling nose.

Normal common sense, like keeping an eye on their wallets or not letting their young play in the middle of the street, go out of the window once in Greece. But if anything goes wrong, like sunstroke, theft or an accident, they rant and rave about “the bloody Greeks” and swear that they will never set foot in the country again (well, not til next year’s bargain break, anyway).

But they're not alone. Along with the flocks of Touristas Gormless that arrive every summer, increasing numbers of Touristas Sensibilas have been witnessed over the past few years.

Unlike their fellow travelers, this species has done a little homework and actually packed its brain along with tickets, passports, money and sun screen. It has already sampled Greek fare at restaurants back home and is eager to try the real thing. Some have read about the places they will visit and dress and act appropriately. Some are even repeat visitors who have formed firm friendships with the native species and have learned the basics of the local lingo.

Yet despite the rise of Touristas Sensibilas, its gormless cousin is in no danger of extinction.

Just take a look around next time you visit any of Greece's tourist hot-spots. See that sweaty red-faced one with the baggy shorts and vest sitting at a table in the full glare of the midday sun as he chugs down a cold beer and tries to work out which end of the souvlaki to start with? He’s a classic male of the species. And you can be sure that his mate will be found somewhere nearby, flitting from shop to shop, in search of a trophy to take back to their nest.

But by October, the last of the breed will have disappeared from the Greek coasts and countryside, leaving it once again to a few foreign culture vultures and the many colourful native species.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect a lot of them have no brains to take along with them! I love your observations, so much better written than mine!