Greek filoxhenia

Excuse me if the following is remotely incoherent, but it is 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, in the heat of a muggy day here in the south-west tip of Greece, an hour after the village market has wound down and the cafes and tavernas have been shuttered, and I am drunk. I swear this is unusual. I am drunk because, on leaving the market, having bought a few vegetables and milk and sat outside on the village square with a frappe (a cold sugary latte, the only drinkable alternative in the face of the dreaded Greek coffee), I was stopped by a villager sat on his own at a table outside another cafe. "Please," he said, "come drink ouzo with me."

I am British, so this turn of events was utterly appalling. What to say? Does he really want me to take him up on his offer, or is this simply a rouse, a pretence at appearing polite? Unprompted kindness is just about the most excruciating situation into which to put any Brit, especially in a foreign country where manners have different rules: our immediate stance - oh no, really you mustn't - is untranslatable. And indeed, he looked at me with incomprehension. Here was a glass, and ouzo, and - he rattled something off to the owner of the cafe - a plate of mezes. "Please, join."

An earlier incident this week made me all the more wary. Travelling and eating on your own can be a risky business when you're a woman, and sure enough, at a taverna a few days ago, just as I was relaxing into the view of a still harbour, brightly painted fishing boats bobbing on its glass-like surface, a spread of homemade taramasalata, fish soup and bread in front of me, a cold bottle of Mythos half drunk, cats' tails alert and circling my table like shark fins, I was joined unbidden by the teenage waiter and treated to a questionable courtship that outlined the qualities of Theo Walcott and Manchester United and finally demanded, on me asking to be shown the toilets, a kiss and a grope. It was fair to say my uncynical trust in Greek friendliness had taken a recent hit.

So I sat down at the table on the village square rather awkwardly, with my shopping bags on my lap and body turned away, ready to run at any moment. The chap proved to be completely harmless: white-haired and portly, maybe in his late 50s or 60s, wearing a crisp buttoned up shirt and light-coloured slacks like all Greek men on a Sunday, he had already had a few ouzos with friends and, he explained, had seen me at a table in a cafe on the other side of the road. And that was it. He ordered mezes for me, saying I was too thin (I liked him already), and more ouzo for us both, and proceeded to tell me about his horses and his trips to London and Liverpool in the 60s. He loved the beetres, he said, the beetres - the Beatles. He was a photographer, taking photos of the Greek islands for postcards and tourist brochures, but had now settled down on a farm in the village of his birth. You must see my horses, he said. Horhes - George - is his name, but just ask for the man with the horses. They'll know. And then he was gone, leaving me to my mezes and the a glass of milky ouzo.

Cat in Greece

I was stunned. This wasn't the first show of hospitality I'd encountered since being here - I've been given lifts, bags of pomegranates, offered tours of a castle, all with no expectation of anything in return (well, okay, I think the boy waiter wanted something). My neighbours, also British, and I have discussed it at length: can it be, that they really want nothing in return? How do we repay them?

But this is filoxhenia, the Greek notion of hospitality, for which they are rightly proud. Tavernas and hotels are often called it - a Google search for the word will show you. All strangers are welcomed with open arms, grapes, ouzo and sent on their way, a little dazed and confused.

So it is hard to align this experience of Greece with recent events and the mounting concern at a rise in fascism, provoked and sustained in some part by hostility to foreigners and immigrants. Filoxhenia goes to the heart of the Greek mentality, its easiness and generosity of spirit that Northern Europeans in particular find so refreshing, so ingratiating, and, sometimes, so bewildering.

This little corner of theĀ PeloponneseĀ is not as visited by tourists as the islands, but it has many long-term British, German and Dutch residents buying up the olive groves and living here at least half the year. It is not uncommon for farmers and people in neighbouring olive groves to stop what they are doing and wave happily at me when I walk by on my way to the village, and cry yassas. Often it is accompanied the question, Germanika? The majority of non-Greek residents in this area are German, so it is not a misplaced question, and I am no doubt reading too much into it when I detect a wariness occasioned by the economic crisis, and relief when I reply, ochi, Agglika.

I have experienced nothing but friendliness (albeit sometimes a little over-friendly). Admittedly as immigrants go I am on the pale end of the spectrum, and, with the combined efforts of the sun and a fleet of mosquitos to turn my entire body pink, a pretty pitiful specimen at that. I watched today as an Asian couple parked up their car, a banged-up old Fiat, alongside the square and plied their wares - a tray full of assorted plastic crap: dolls, clocks, frisbees - to universal disdain, before heading off to the next town along the coast. Was their less-than-welcome reception down to what they were selling, or something more deep-seated? Impossible to tell.

If the reports are true, it goes to that we are never free of fascism, and that it is always an aberration brought about by desperation, never an outgrowth of any one country or its national psyche. Greece is a country that prides itself on its attitude to strangers. It has built an entire tourism industry on it, and it is one of the reasons foreigners fall so heavily for its charms. And I hope, despite the odd unwanted grope, it's an attitude that weathers the inevitable turbulence on its way.

More pressingly someone's going to have to come over and see some horses with me.

I think I need a lie down.