Barbara J. Euser
Through Vineyards and Villages of Vatika
A Village Cemetery
A California Gardener Goes to Greece
Vines of Vatika
Barbara J. Euser
The Winds of Mesochori
Greeks Bearing Gifts
Through the Trap Door
Ann Kathleen Ure
Pathway to Paradise
Barbara J. Euser
Theia Chrysoula’s Shoes
What my Father Dreams
Topless on Elafonisos
Swimming with Cyclops
The Evil Eye
What the Shepherd Saw
On the Steps of Aghios Nektarios
Barbara J. Euser
Greek for a Week
Ann Kathleen Ure
My Greek Ancestors
M. J. Pramik
From Vatika Kitchens
Barbara J. Euser
A Place in the Heart
Linda Watanabe McFerrin
About the Contributors
About the Editors
Greek for a Week
by Ann Kathleen Ure
Yiorgos screeched to a halt in front of our Mesochori home and insisted that all five of us would easily fit into his taxi. He ushered four of my traveling companions into the back seat where – just like children – two sat forward and two sat back to share the space as best as possible. With rumps successfully planted aft, and mine in the front passenger seat, the taxi doors were slammed shut and off we went.
Our Greek and Yiorgos’ English ran out of steam after a round of hellos. We settled into a polite, albeit brief, silence. Then Yiorgos switched on the radio and began to sing along.
“We’re in Greece and we have a singing cab driver!” Catherine exclaimed. Each of us was enamored with anything Greek at that point in time. Every experience was new, fresh, memorable, and worthy of journaling. As his energy was contagious, soon all six heads in the taxi were bobbing in time to the spirited Greek music.
With his large, captive audience, and buoyed by our enthusiasm, Yiorgos increased his speed, weaving down the mountain and swaying to the beat. Then he lowered his window, extended his left arm, and began to snap his fingers. It was around the fourth or fifth curve that my travel mates in the backseat began to pale and nudge each other in alarm. They noticed, as I did, that Yiorgos’ right hand was constantly adjusting the radio volume up while his left arm, fully extended into the evening breeze, kept time and, intermittently, encircled and caressed an unseen “air partner.”
We nervously shot glances at one another, yet no one dared interrupt Yiorgos’ process. Lord knows he didn’t need another distraction. Eventually deposited, safely, at the foot of the mountain, we told our Greek hosts about our unusual, unnerving ride. They were not surprised, nor impressed, assuring us that many Greek cabbies used both hands to sing and dance while driving. What they did not explain, we recalled days later, was how they steered.
Throughout the week that followed, we Americans would soak up Greek culture with enthusiasm and abandon. However, adapting to Greek customs was a little trickier. It became clear that newcomers must learn the ropes. These are basic behaviors that, when mastered, provide travelers with the opportunity to experience Greece as an insider, also known as becoming Greek for a week.
In rural Greece, no one stops at stop signs. Apparently, they serve as suggestions only. On our long drive down the mountain from Monemvasia, I realized that our driver didn’t even slow down for these occasional postings.
Picturing myself behind the wheel, and having already adapted to song-and-dance-man cabbies, I reflected that driving in Greece had a lot in common with driving in downtown Manhattan, or maneuvering a race car through a video game maze. The goal was to modulate between acceleration and deceleration to avoid oncoming obstacles without ever coming to a complete stop.
This became doubly exciting when it was performed with only one hand. Those drivers who were not dancing with their left hands were usually flipping Greek worry beads — that dangled from key chains — with their right hands. (No surprise there, given the absence of any rules of the road.) Rumor had it that one of the cabbies was so successful in avoiding complete stops that he hadn’t had his brake pads replaced since the last appearance of Haley’s comet in 1986. And, after having ridden with him, I’d wager that he had no plans to replace them again til its scheduled reappearance in 2062.
Naps are required. In Vatika, everything and everybody shuts down from three to six in the afternoon. As visitors, we too were expected to nap or at least disengage for this three-hour period. The rationale, we were told, was relief from the heat of the late afternoon. Regardless of the motivation, it helped explain how Greek days so easily roll over into Greek nights.
Time is more fluid there. Asked to prepare for a late afternoon workshop, we later learned that it would take place at seven o’clock. In my world, seven is early evening: my work is done; I’ve got a glass of wine in front of me; and, if it’s winter and I’ve no other plans, I may have even have slipped into my flannel pajamas and robe for the evening. Here, we slipped into pajamas and gabbed into the evening too. But our Greek pajama party began at midnight when our hostess donned her nightgown and four-inch heels to conduct tango lessons. And this on a “school night!”
The extended days usually meant that the following mornings would begin no earlier than nine with a leisurely, light breakfast and a much later, and heartier, lunch. Adapting to this new regimen, and I use that word loosely, produced spectacular results. Witness the beastly hot day when we were dropped off for four hours to shop and have lunch in Neapoli. Four hours? I couldn’t imagine spending more than an hour walking the hot and dusty streets to look at tourist fare. My friends agreed, so we took sixty minutes to pick up gifts for home, then headed to an outdoor café where we spent the next three hours decompressing under an umbrella. There commenced a leisurely family-style lunch, sampling Greek salad, fried calamari, garlic and clam pasta, our first Greek pizza, and lemonade. We talked. We traded stories. The tables around us were full with others who had also escaped the heat and were kicked back in conversation with beer, wine and no other plans other than to enjoy the meal and their company. Now that’s civilized.
Be prepared to join a Greek twelve-step program. As opposed to such programs at home that require abstinence and anonymity, these classes were held at night on a large patio, under the stars, and with a full complement of alcoholic beverages. Our classes were taught by young ladies, the sisters Alexa and Chrysa, who coaxed us out of our chairs with promises of inclusion and tension-reduction. As Chrysa took one hand and Alexa the other, I prepared myself for an intervention. Instead, I was launched into my first Greek dancing lesson.
“Come on, join us!” Alexa appealed to the others. “It’s easy. You just have to count to twelve!” Oh, were it only that easy.
“It’s all about the two, four and eight counts,” Chrysa cheerfully instructed us. “Lead with your right foot on one, step behind with your left on two, step side, cross in front on four, step side on five, six, seven, rock front on eight, step in place for nine and ten, back for eleven, in place for twelve and then lead off again with the right foot to begin again.”
We danced in a circle with arms interlocked, though it was a rare bit of magic to find us all on the same foot and moving in the same direction at any one time. Like karaoke, this was definitely an activity that was more fun to do than it was to observe. While watching, I found myself grimacing at others’ missteps and wondering if the white man’s disease (an inability to find the beat) had rubbed off on some of their wives or partners. But everyone slowly improved, including me, though I did utter countless numbers of “damns” when, at the eighth count, my left foot rocked backward instead of forward.
With Chrysa’s unwavering vocalization of the twelve-step count, I experienced moments of getting it right and some swan-like fluidity in my movements. She earned an A-plus for her patience and teaching skills. But it was her sister Alexa whose dancing stood out. In fact, it was exquisite. Young and strong, and with long coltish legs, her feet were so light that she barely skimmed the surface of our dance floor. While demonstrating a second dance that we newcomers could only stand back and admire, she awed us with her elegance. A gesture as brief and simple as raising her left foot off the ground at a slight angle for a half beat was inexplicably lovely. We could have watched her for hours under those stars.
Listen with your eyes. “It’s Greek to me” is one of the truest truisms ever uttered, as it is near impossible to comprehend the spoken or written word while in Greece. I marveled at our group’s concerted efforts to snatch a bit of meaning here or there while listening to conversations. Each time we were in the presence of natives, we were quiet and attentive, heads tilted slightly to the right in that posture associated with dogs who are straining to interpret humans’ senseless babble.
Understanding words on street signs, maps, store shelves, and product labels was even more useless. It was further complicated by the Greeks use of two alphabets: the classic and the modern. This meant that the same indecipherable word would often be depicted with multiple spellings.
The Greeks amazing appetite for speaking loudly, gesticulating and showing physical affection seemed to be their way of compensating for a language that is understood by few. It was this expressiveness and body language that enabled us to interpret a bit of what was going on around us. For example, when greeted with a bear hug and double kisses (left and right cheeks) we could be fairly confident that we were welcome. Similarly, the singing and dancing of our Greek dinner companions in restaurants, and between courses, was a clear sign that the evening was progressing well.
I imagined how difficult it would be to understand anything spoken by our new friends had they possessed the limited flair of the British. A Greek conversation – delivered with such polite, buttoned-up behavior and mannerisms – would baffle even the most sensitive observers. On this point, all of us Americans agreed. Without the body language and effusiveness we’d come to depend upon, a young man taking up a woman’s hand to propose marriage could as easily have been interpreted as a citizen’s arrest.
Octopus and ouzo is a complete meal. This concept, coupled with the fact that we were to dine at the establishment famous for this limited menu, was a cause of distress for one or two of my travel mates. The anise-flavored liquor, alone, was a turn-off for some. They had no intention of trying ouzo and were not the least bit fascinated by how its clear color turned opaque with the addition of water or ice.
In particular, Catherine, a fellow writer, had announced, even before the trip began, that she would not be seduced into sampling either of the ‘O’ foods. This became a call-to-action for me and some of the others who thought that a trip half way round the world presented the perfect opportunity to take a few risks, try something new.
At the first possible opportunity we took Catherine to the octopus and ouzo outdoor bar for an afternoon snack. Glasses of water and charming individual bottles of ouzo were ordered by our Greek accomplice. Then they were served, all around, so that she wasn’t given a chance to say no. Getting Catherine to try the ouzo wasn’t that difficult. She wasn’t a teetotaler, and she liked licorice, so she took a sip and said it was “Okay.” It was a measured response. She likely, and correctly, assumed that the ouzo wasn’t the only new experience we had in store for her that afternoon.
The octopus had also been ordered in Greek and it arrived on small appetizer plates a few minutes later. Grilled and thinly sliced, it didn’t look at all like an eight-legged, ink-squirting, sucker-covered sea monster. Still, Catherine demurred. And a full-court press by her table mates ensued. I was among the pushiest, I’m sure, taking on the role of a paid coach who has led a shy would-be skydiver to the door of the plane to encourage her to jump.
“This is all about personal growth!” I cajoled. “We didn’t really come here to write; we came to l-i-v-e!” It sounded a bit desperate and misguided since our focus was just a small piece of cooked fish. Still, Catherine shook her head, suggesting that her personal growth could be deferred for at least one more day.
Switching tactics, we collectively eased off and opted to try the octopus ourselves. It was surprisingly tasty.
“Catherine!” I began again, with enthusiasm. “It tastes like chicken!” With that innocuous but true statement, her resolve melted. And so Catherine took her first bite of grilled octopus. We all celebrated her achievement with clinks of our glasses, cries of “Yamas!” and small sips of ouzo. Except for Catherine. She took a huge gulp, the ouzo having become the lesser of two evils at her disposal. And the next day, to her chagrin, we got her to eat her first raw mussel too.
You can’t take it with you. Returning to the United States and to my own routine, I made every effort to sustain what I learned and loved about Greek people and their customs. Sadly, some things just wouldn’t translate. I shivered in the white gauzy shirts and slacks, so apropos to Vatika, when our summer fog failed to lift til noon, then rolled back in before five. I gave up on the leisurely lunches I’d become accustomed to when friends couldn’t make the time, reminding me that this was the land of gulp and run. So, once again, I’ve begun to eat at my desk, alone.
When I attempted to dance while driving on Highway 101 South I nearly lost my left arm to a speeding Subaru. And my boss just glared at me when I mentioned that I’d lately become accustomed to three-hour naps. Worst of all was my failed attempt to demonstrate Greek dancing to my family. I knew things had deteriorated badly when they pointed out that my routine didn’t add up. I was two steps shy of twelve.
And so, despite my best efforts, I’ve learned that you really can’t take it with you. But the memories are strong, the new friendships are true, and there are always pictures to remind me of any details I may have forgotten. With or without the daily observance of customs odd and dear, I know that I really was Greek for a week. And I can always go back.